This thesis is an ethnography of maidenhood set within the modernising Indonesian city of Mataram, on the island of Lombok. The terrain young women traverse on their journeys to womanhood is shaped by hegemonic and counter-hegemonic ideologies of sexuality and gender, women's pursuit of competing desires and the dangers inherent in negotiating female sexuality independently of marriage. The perimeters of inquiry are circumscribed by the life stage of maidenhood, and are not restricted to a homogeneous ethnic group or a discrete geographical location within the city, although the majority of women whose lives are depicted in the thesis are Muslim. This ethnography explores and interprets single women's identities, experiences and relationships prior to marriage, incorporating their friendships, kin relations and courtship. The ethnography responds to a gap in our knowledge about unmarried Indonesian women, as overwhelmingly research on Indonesian women has focused on mature women, and their status and roles in society. Research on the lives of unmarried women has tended to concentrate on women as workers, and marginalised women such as sex workers, or more recently same-sex attracted women. The elaborate portrait of female sexuality in this thesis provides the essential cultural and social context for addressing the increasing health risks of pregnancy, reproductive morbidity and sexually transmitted infections (including HIV) faced by single women living in rapidly changing urban environments.
The thesis contributes to our understanding of emerging Indonesian sexualities by examining the complex ways in which social change is manifested in the realm of sexuality, where the evolution of indigenous knowledge and practices interacts with modernity. The sexual ideologies of the New Order state, key religions and adat (custom) collude in attempting to confine the legitimate expression of female sexuality to marriage, while the counter ideology of seks bebas (free sex) represents a contested alternative set of sexual values and practices for young people. Single women who act out their sexual desires in private typically maintain a public performance of sexual purity. This thesis explicitly acknowledges discourses of female desire among young Indonesian women that exist independently of marriage, and investigates the dialectics of desire and danger that single women negotiate as they seek to assert their sexuality. Single women skillfully negotiate multiple desires during maidenhood, often treading a delicate balance between the desire to maintain a faultless sexual reputation and avoid personal and family shame, the desire to find an appropriate spouse, to enjoy premarital relationships and love affairs with men they are unlikely to marry, to maximise their education and employment opportunities, and to explore their sexuality without compromising their marriage prospects. Women's varied success in juggling these complex desires often depends upon the visibility of their premarital relationships, as secrecy remains a key factor in single women's ability to act autonomously without experiencing social reprimand. While secrecy can assist women in resisting hegemonic sexual ideals, it can also be problematic because when women's resistance remains largely invisible, it fails to explicitly challenge gender inequality. The necessity of sexual secrecy can also leave single women vulnerable to sexual coercion, and reinforces the dominant notion that premarital sex for women is inherently shameful.
This ethnography explores in detail the nexus between maiden identities and single women's reproductive health. It demonstrates how single women's health is determined by identity, in terms of the kinds of health concerns women experience and their ability to negotiate various health concerns. Fear of the social stigma attached to premarital sex is highly detrimental for single women experiencing reproductive morbidity, regardless of their virginity status or whether their symptoms are related to sex or pregnancy. This fear routinely deters women from accessing safe reproductive health services, thus aggravating their morbidity, and can also lead to dangerous practices such as popular methods of induced abortion and irrational drug use. Government health policy, and both public and private services, fail to address adequately the specific reproductive health needs of single women, and the quality of services they receive is particularly poor relative to the care offered to married women. The illegality of providing contraception to unmarried women, and the clandestine nature and inflated cost of menstrual regulation, also constrain women's ability to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease and to access safe abortion services. The thesis questions the notion of choice in relation to induced abortion for single women, and argues that young women who lack socially or personally acceptable alternatives do not necessarily experience their decisions to abort as a matter of choice.