From Sex Workers to Batam Wives

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Ani married her second husband, a fifty seven year old Singaporean Chinese client, just three months after they first met in the brothel where she was working. Before they could marry, Ah Huat paid SGD 2,000 to Ani’s madam to release her debt with the brothel. After their marriage, Ah Huat bought a two-bedroom house for them in Tanjung Balai Karimun, the main city on the island. Ani later brought her parents and child to Karimun to meet her husband and to see her new home: When my mother first came to visit she cried until she passed out. I was still young, you see, and my husband was old. I just said to her—as I told you she doesn’t know about my background—I said to her, “Mum, he’s the one I’m meant to be with. What’s the point of marrying a young man if he treats me badly, he’s not responsible, and he doesn’t care for my family, especially as I have a child? Yes, he’s old, but he takes responsibility for everything, he is caring. And the main thing is that he’s responsible. He cares for my child, for you and father, for everyone.” She found it so hard to accept because I am still young. That was the problem for her. But eventually she got used to it. She even became fond of my husband. Ani’s son now lives with her in Karimun and her parents have become reconciled to her marriage. She feels safe with her husband because he is so different from her violent first spouse. Ah Huat continues to live and work in Singapore but visits Ani regularly and provides her with Rp.4,000,000 housekeeping money per month. He plans to retire to the Islands in a few years and live there permanently with his new wife and her child.Since her marriage, Ani has had the chance to lead a middle class lifestyle unavailable to all but the well to do in Jakarta. She has her own home and motorcycle, sufficient income to buy expensive clothes and food, and has traveled to Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand: My life’s really different. Really different—just so different. I used not to have anything. I couldn’t afford to buy anything! Now I can go to Malaysia, to Thailand. I can go anywhere, buy anything. Best of all because my husband loves me, he gives me anything I ask for.€.€.€. Before I couldn’t even buy a dress worth Rp.20,000. I hardly had enough money to buy food. Ani is no longer the naïve country girl who was tricked into sex work, but a financially savvy woman who makes important decisions about her family’s future. This transition has involved careful, strategic decisions about her new life in order for her to fit the image of a middle class housewife. Lia also married a former client, Farid, a Malaysian whose first wife is infertile. Farid has rented a house for Lia in Tanjung Balai Karimun and sends her 1,500 Malaysian Ringgit7 per month to cover her living costs. Like Ah Huat, he visits regularly but continues to live and work in Malaysia. If he is too busy to come to the Islands, Lia sometimes goes to Malaysia, where they meet in a hotel. Farid’s first wife knows he has married again, but the two wives have never met.Unlike Ani, Lia’s decision to marry was not about reconstructing an idealized nuclear family with the children from her previous marriage, who have remained with their grandparents in Deli Serdang. Instead, she dreams of establishing a new family with her second husband. Lia pragmatically acknowledges that women married to nonresident non-Indonesians face a range of problems, not least of which is the threat of being abandoned by their husbands. She believes that women have the power to make or break their relationships with foreigners: It really depends on us. If we’re good to them, they’ll be even better to us. But if we’re bad, well, that’s what happens. Lots of my friends are stuck in the brothels because they have taken money from their Singaporean or Malaysian clients and given it to their boyfriends here. Eventually their Singaporean “husbands” dump them, even though those Singaporeans are actually quite nice men. [These women] really overstep the mark. They get a good one, and they go and do that. There are plenty of those. They don’t realize that their boyfriends are just using them. They get dumped [by their Singaporean client], the money stops, and then the boyfriend disappears. Then they are all on their own again. Although Farid has professed a desire for a child, Lia worries that he might abandon her and the baby. If that were to happen, she matter of factly asserts that she would go back to freelance sex work to support her children. Her willingness to return to sex work reflects Lia’s sense of herself as an independent woman who can make choices about her future, as well as her knowledge that paid sex can be a lucrative form of work. Unlike Ani, Lia does not profess to be “in love” with her new husband. But this does not mean that she views her relationship as any less authentic than any other marriage. The concept of a “love marriage” is relatively new in Indonesia, and it is commonly asserted that in an arranged marriage love will grow between the couple (Smith-Hefner 2005; Munir 2002). Although marriage to a foreigner has provided Lia with a more secure economic future, her decision to marry Farid was not solely based on money. She rejected a Singaporean suitor (who could have offered her greater wealth and the chance to live in a developed country) because of their different religious beliefs and because of the greater autonomy that life as a second wife living alone in Karimun offered her. Like Ani, Lia has modified her behavior and dress to approximate the life of a middle class housewife and is generally successful in “passing” within the community. Both women acknowledge that their economic and social mobility is a matter of both luck and hard work.

 

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