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Excerpt taken from The Artist Spotlight on Cleo Edge Magazine, “Culture Matters: Filmmaker/Anthropologist Robert Lemelson Crosses the Boundaries of Mediums to Explore Women’s Rights Conditions and Customary Law in Indonesia” by Mai Sennaar
MS: What general things have you identified in the human condition that are consistent–what are the take away lessons from Bitter Honey that are true for all of us?
RL: I would say for Bitter Honey, “culture matters”, and that’s the basic message of anthropology. If you look at the overall message of Bitter Honey, it’s that there are rules that we all live by culturally. In Bali, one of the major structures is called Adat or (Customary Law). In many traditional societies, before colonialism, you have local village customary law regulating people’s lives. In the way that the police or the court systems regulate our lives in America. And it’s quite significant for women’s lives in polygamous unions.
For example, what the film shows is that because of patrilineality in Indonesia, when women marry, they move to a man’s compound and their assets enter into his lineage, so if a woman wants to get divorced, she will lose her children, they will stay in the husband’s compound, and she will lose her inheritance rights which goes from grandfather to father to son. I mean the women maintain property and land rights through their sons, but they themselves don’t own property.
Perhaps most significantly, in Bali they have a belief of reincarnation of souls. For example, when I die, my soul will go into a kind of heaven place for 3 or 4 generations and then enter into the soul my great-great grandson, and similarly my soul descended from my great-great grandfather or someone of that generation. It’s a kind of familial reincarnation. So what happens when they get divorced is that their souls are cut off from their husband’s lineage so they actually lose their souls.
Unmarried women in a village context, divorced or widowed are socially excluded on many levels. So there’s also a loss of social roles, so all those things really matter when you think about someone who wants to get out an abusive marriage and how much they have to lose. So culture really matters for women’s lives. And then the question is, how do you change customary law…that’s complex…you know, how do you change these rules and regulations that govern people’s lives? In these sort of circumstances, culture determines many, many aspects. It really matters.