Househusbands of the world, unite!
Julia Suryakusuma, Jakarta
Dina and Eddy are in their mid 30s, with two young children. They're an ordinary educated, middle-class Indonesian couple ... except that Dina is completing a PhD in anthropology overseas. That means Eddy, who has degrees in religious studies and strategic studies and used to be a journalist for a national newspaper, is now a househusband, and will be until 2010.
A typical day starts with Eddy dropping the children off at school and Dina at the university. At 8 a.m. he makes his way to the warehouse where he works part-time as a forklift operator. At 4 p.m., he picks up the children from school and Dina from university and they return home together. In the evening they cook and do household chores together but Eddy does most of it while Dina studies -- and right now he looks after everything, because Dina is away in Aceh for a few months doing field work.
Eddy sees their domestic arrangements as perfectly natural. "Family members," he says, "should take turns supporting each other, especially husbands and wives." Now it's Dina's turn to be supported, because she has the opportunity to further her studies and career.
A good Muslim, Eddy says everybody has the right to advance themselves. In fact, according to Islam, to advance yourself in the field of knowledge and education is more than a right. It is a sacred duty, and an obligation for both men and women.
The first word revealed of the Koran was "Iqra": READ! Seek knowledge! Be educated! Al-Zumr, paragraph 9, reveals: "Are they equal, those who know and those who do not know?" Al-Baqarah, paragraph 269, reveals: "Allah grants wisdom to whom He pleases and to whom wisdom is granted indeed he receives an overflowing benefit."
You may think, well, Eddy certainly comes from a progressive, modern background! You'd be wrong. Eddy's parents are just ordinary farmers, working paddy fields in Padang, West Sumatra. But in his family it was always common for the boys to cook, wash and clean up, as part of their training to become independent and self-sufficient adults.
This probably has something to do with the matrilineal traditions of his ethnic group, the Minangkabau, but Eddy sees it more in terms of his own personal family values: if you're part of a family, you put the interests of the family first. So, if an opportunity opens up for any family member, male or female, they should be supported, to advance the family as a whole.
I asked if his arrangements with Dina were unique. "No, no," he said. "We've got many friends who do what we do." He's right, of course. The househusband phenomenon is increasingly common, although it's still far from being recognized socially. In Indonesia, as elsewhere in the world, family structures are changing, as education and work opportunities increase for women, but also because of economic necessity. In the Philippines, for example, the number of children in the care of their fathers has hugely increased since the 1980s, as more and more women leave to become overseas workers.
For these women, their role as nurturer is changing to that of provider. There is a growing number of men who are, conversely, claiming their right to nurture. These are often not professed feminists, but simply ordinary guys who want to be fathers and husbands and support their children and partners at home. It's a humanizing phenomenon, the other side of the coin from women claiming their right to a role besides wife and mother.
This is the case with Timbo, a classmate of my son Aditya at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane. Timbo used his degree in industrial design to work for a few years, but now his wife Jodi has a more lucrative job as a medical doctor. For the last two years he's been a full-time househusband.
"It's a challenge," he admits: with two infant children, he had to learn the art of childrearing on the spot, while handling all the demands of running a household and supporting Jodi. He says he needs to feel valued as a supporter, but he gets that, together with much personal satisfaction, in his role as a care-giver.
Parents and extended family members are supportive, but socially he feels it's assumed that men are the providers in all households. He told me of an incident when Jodi's credit card statements were sent to him, when in fact he was only a supplementary card holder -- just because he's a Mr. and not a Mrs.
Whatever gains feminism may have made, most men still think of themselves as meant to work -- outside the house. The stereotypes are so deeply ingrained that even Nena, an ardent feminist friend of mine, has mixed feelings on the matter. She told me that her journalist husband's dream is to stay home and write, look after the garden, and not worry about bringing money home, leaving all that to his wife. Nena admitted she wasn't sure she'd be happy to shoulder all the responsibility for keeping the family finances afloat.
Reconfiguring gender roles isn't always easy. Just imagine: if Hillary Clinton becomes President, then Bill, once the world's most powerful man, will become its most prominent househusband. How will he adjust to supervising the White House menu? I hope he's been watching the TV series Commander in Chief (Sunday nights on Metro TV in Indonesia) to pick up a few tips from Rod Callaway, the screen husband of Mackenzie Allen, "first
Female president of the U.S."
Well, whether he likes it or not, Bill Clinton as househusband would probably make it a bit easier for Eddy and Timbo and all the other househusbands of the world, adored in private but overlooked in public. Who would have thought Bill would turn out be a feminist after all?
The writer is the author of Sex, Power and nation. She can be contacted at
email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.