The sexual division of labor on the Indonesian rice fields

Sanne van Oosten

The last few days we have been enjoying the beautiful rice fields of Central Java. The idyllic rice fields give much food for the world and food for thought alike. For instance, the laborers on the rice fields only earn about 1 euro per day, enabling the price of rice to remain low. Therefore, both men and women work to make ends meet. Seeing women and men work side by side was a pleasant surprise to me, but quickly I noticed the character of their work was completely different. Women took care of the sowing of the seeds, replanting of the rice plants and manually weeding the fields. Men, on the other hand, were always seen with equipment; rakes, axes, plows or spray-on fertilizer. Even though men and women work side by side, why are their tasks so different from each other?

As soon as I had the chance I asked this question to our guide and host in the village we were staying. Our guide, Benny, explained that “When women touch the rice, they touch it with their feelings, which makes the rice taste better.” This explanation praises women with their powerful rice enhancing feelings, compared to loser-insensitive men, who don’t possess any of these mystic powers. However, this seeming compliment is actually a mere justification for the significant division of labor, thus placing them in a position in which they cannot develop themselves beyond their alleged innate powers. Meanwhile, men develop skills that go beyond the picking of rice, they learn how to deal with all kinds of equipment. After seeing my puzzled look, Benny quickly hastened to say, “That is just a myth, but the people in this village are very… well… [Benny hesitates and makes air-quotes] uneducated, so they believe that this myth is true.”

“What a bunch of backward idiots,” one could say. In that light, one could add that, “clearly, they have a lot of developing to do until they’ll ever reach the state that us Westerners are in. Yes, please, educate these people, so they won’t base their sexual division of labor on backward sexual myths. At least “we” i.e. the West, base our free choices on facts!” However, is this really the case? Here a few examples of “facts” the West bases their so-called free choices on.

In the nineties John Grey published a book that was soon to become an international best-seller; Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. This book explains problems encountered in many contemporary marriages as genetic remnants of the time of the hunters and gatherers. John Grey’s book was immensely popular and was read by educated men and women all over the world. Many other books with the same line of thought followed. Allan and Barbara Pease wrote Why men don’t listen and women can’t read maps. And Deborah Tannen’s book You just don’t understand. All of these books were widely read by men, but mostly by women. This genre of books give women a very positive feeling by explaining the struggles they experience with their husbands. Moreover, these books are generally more positive about women than men. Men are insensitive, numb and tactless beings, whereas women are sensitive, insightful, socially agreeable creatures. What kind of women doesn’t want to embrace such compliments?

These books all postulate that the differences between men and women developed during the time of the hunters and gatherers. An explanation that is present in many of these books is that women developed wider peripheral vision than men. This was of great use when needing to keep an eye on the children and gathering berries and nuts at the same time. That’s why women are much better at multitasking, for instance by combining household tasks and other work. It’s all programmed in our DNA. Simultaneously, men were busy hunting, which helped them develop perfect tunnel vision, allowing them to focus on their prey. That is why men cannot multitask. They shouldn’t be bothered with household tasks when trying to build up a career, they just aren’t as good at it. This justifies the male being the family breadwinner.

These explanations are deeply embedded in discourse on the differences between men and women. However, archeological research has not yet proven the omnipresent existence of hunters and gatherers. Some equipment such as bones, spears and axes have been found, alongside some burial artifacts. This definitely does not prove what the relationships between men and women were and who did what. Moreover, other archeologists have proven that most societies did not hunt at all. Neither men nor women did any hunting, they were all just gatherers. They ate berries, leaves and meat that was already killed by predators. These theories are much less acknowledged. Why? Probably because they don’t explain the current relations between men and women as well as the hunter and gatherer hypothesis does.

This makes me wonder… Don’t “we”, the West, also attach importance to some sexual myths of our own? This brings me back to the explanation of our guide and host, Benny, “The people in this village are very… well… uneducated, so they believe that this myth is true.” If an educated Indonesian can easily recognize how myths justify their sexual division of labor, why don’t educated Westerners do the same?

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4 responses to “The sexual division of labor on the Indonesian rice fields”

  1. bloggerswithoutborder says :

    Dear Bert,

    Thank you for the interesting addition. You were right, the guide did not explain it in such detail. You will be happy to hear that in none of the rice fields we saw had loud machines doing the work. On the other hand, the women in the rice fields were talking very loudly while planting the rice. I would probably do the same, it seemed very gezellig! Too bad that Javanese are forgetting the origin of their myths, although I wouldn’t mind if the West would forget about the myth of the hunters and gatherers!

    Sanne van Oosten

    • bert steevensz says :

      Dear Sanne,

      I don’t know if the age of hunters and gatherers in the West has produced such strong myths that survived until now. But don’t forget Sinterklaas/ Santa Claus, with it’s deep roots in Germanic mythology; and don’t forget the Christmas tree either!


  2. bert steevensz says :

    Dear Sanne,

    The sexual division of tasks for workers on the rice field in Java is indeed laden with myth, so much so, that your guide Benny – and with him probably many laborers on the fields – still refers to myth but obviously ( or is he just faking this?) doesn’t know anymore to what myth exactly. I was born in Indonesia but live in the West for many decades now, and still, when cooking rice, I cannot get rid of the influence of these old myths still lingering over the rice crop: I will never lift up the lid of the rice pan when the rice is still cooking.

    According to the myth, the rice crop was given to mankind by the rice goddess, and also goddess of fertility Dewi Sri, perhaps the most important pre-islamic deity in Java. Out of respect to her and to avoid disturbing her when harvesting rice, this job must be done in silence. That is why women only are allowed to do this, softly with their delicate fingers and with a special knife, the ani-ani, with which they can cut the rice only stalk by stalk. And especially harvesting is the most sensitive part of the cultivation of rice, because then you are taking the crops away, as it were hurting the goddess, so men will never be allowed to execute this. On the other hand they do nowadays allow noisy machines to enter the rice field, quite the opposite of respect to Dewi Sri …. Myth is losing it’s impact anyway, also upon the ‘uneducated’ part of the javanese population, unfortunately….

    Bert Steevensz

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