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Beneath the burqas

The world's largest Muslim country is ground zero for a fledgling literary movement whose topic is sex and whose practitioners are women.

February 25, 2007|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

Bandung, Indonesia — TEACHING high school chemistry, she was the picture of propriety, not an inch of flesh exposed except her hands and a cheerful face framed by a tightly pinned head scarf. Her students were separated according to the Islamic school's strict rules: boys on one side of the class, girls on the other. Lessons stuck to dry theory, like rote explanations of the periodic table and how atoms and molecules bond.

But during the school break for the holy month of Ramadan, Dinar Rahayu was free to indulge her fantasies. At a desktop computer, in the middle-class home where she lived with her parents, she wrote a novel whose two main characters think they are incarnations of the god Apollo and a Valkyrie, a Nordic deity. Theirs is a world where women dominate men with abusive sex.

It is an explicit story from the start, conjuring scenes of strippers, child rape and sadomasochism. In one of the opening chapter's tamer passages, the skillful strokes of a transsexual named Dinar persuade her lover Jonggi to put down his can of soda and the TV's remote control.

"I like to be with him," Dinar says of Jonggi. "I do everything to make him happy. And I bet he's happy. I'm sure of it. In fact, he lets my hand slide inside his underpants toward that bulge."

Rahayu, 36, is one of a small but bold group of female writers exploring the transgressive edges of sexuality in Indonesia, home of the world's largest Muslim population. The country got a global reputation for prudishness last year when Playboy's debut on the newsstands sparked protests and prosecution. But far edgier work by the country's most provocative female authors is printed without fuss by mainstream publishers, including some of the biggest names in Indonesia's book industry, and widely available in bookstores. Instead of banning or burning the books, government and religious leaders have largely ignored the erotic works, even as some of the best-written race up the bestsellers list.

Indonesians' conflicted attitudes toward sex and women play out in the reception of these explicit works. And the books themselves, which range from fumbling attempts at making art out of raw sex to skillfully written, sensual literature, offer rare entree into the sexual imagination of the modern Muslim woman.

They emerged only in the last decade, the first appearing in 1998, the year the Suharto regime collapsed and democracy took hold. Former journalist Ayu Utami led the way with "Saman," a novel that explores women's sexuality and taboos against the backdrop of the oppression of plantation workers. It is considered the quintessence of a genre that some critics have labeled sastra wangi, or "fragrant literature," a term female authors consider patronizing.

The market has proven to be hot for the works that have followed Utami's path. Though Indonesian-language fiction rarely sells more than few thousand copies, Djenar Maesa Ayu's "Don't Play (With Your Genitals)," a 2004 collection of 11 short stories, took off. Combined sales of "Don't Play" and another of Ayu's most popular books total almost 42,000 copies.

The genre's popularity is inspiring younger writers to take more risks. Ayu said one of her readers started a conversation by e-mail, and while revealing she was a lesbian, said she was determined to be a writer. The woman, whom Ayu declined to identify to protect her against discrimination, recently published her first book.

"I don't want to look like a hero," Ayu said, "but at least when she started to write and blurt out the burden of her subconscious, it was a relief for me."

First impressions

TO those who judge books by their covers, Rahayu would appear an unlikely champion of risque writing. She met to talk about her novel conservatively dressed in a floral-print head scarf, or hijab, and with loose-fitting, modest clothes that covered her arms and legs. In downtown Bandung, a city about 110 miles southeast of Jakarta, she was in the minority among women wearing hip-hugging jeans, short-sleeved tops and other Western fashions.

"Every woman, every person in this world -- no matter what religion -- in their soul they have very unique thoughts," Rahayu said over cold drinks at Starbucks. "Many of my friends also wear this hijab, and they are also restless. If they see something happen that isn't right, they also want to speak out about it."

Writing her first novel, "Ode to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch," was a liberating experience for Rahayu, who favors expressing desire instead of suppressing it as evil.

Indonesian women don't just talk about "simple, traditional marriage," she said, but about their own sexual desires, how they want to be treated by the men they love. "I guess it's our right to speak about such a thing, our right to feel it about ourselves -- not to let it be determined by a creature called husband or boyfriend. We don't have those halo things on our head. We're human."

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