In some ways, Balinese society is more gender-equal, or at least gender-neutral, than many countries. We have a gender-neutral first-person pronoun, ia, and we use many of the same names—especially the names that designate birth order—for boys or girls. For example, part of my name is “Nyoman,” meaning the third-born child, regardless of whether they are male or female.
Some jobs in the West traditionally designated to men are done by men or women in Bali. In fact, women in Bali tend to do the heavy lifting, carrying concrete blocks, baskets of fruit, jugs of water, or enormous offerings—sometimes as heavy as 110 pounds—on their heads. It can take several men to lift an offering onto a women’s head, that she will then carry, sometimes while holding the hand of a child or two.
The weight isn’t all physical. Indonesia has had a female president. I find it very interesting how sometimes—at least in this small Indonesian island—position, relationships, or needs trump gender. It’s common for men to be maids and housekeepers. And when women work, men take care of the children.
But that doesn’t mean that everything is equal.
Most women I know are still what you might call “housewives.” They are “married” to their kitchens, to the household laundry, and to serving their husbands. When a woman marries, she leaves her family and joins her husband’s village. During the pandemic, this means that a married woman is considered a “stranger” in the village of her birth and is not permitted to travel there when it locks down.
Nevertheless, Balinese women accomplish extraordinary things, even if these accomplishments aren’t known outside their villages. That’s where the BASAbali/BASAibu Wiki comes in.
BASAbali is an alliance of artists, students, scholars, and community members who work closely with the public to strengthen Balinese culture and provide a model of sustainability for the world. The wiki is a collaborative online resource used by more than two million people that fortifies our local languages, traditions, and environment and foregrounds the achievements of women.
The unique thing about the wiki is that our communities shape the platform as well as the content. One of the important things we’ve invented together is a Virtual Library that acts as an artists’ directory. It is here that people from villages and cities place the biographies and recorded accomplishments of women important to their communities, most of whom are less known to the larger world than their male counterparts. That’s why we adopted the secondary title BASAibu: ibu is the Indonesian honorific for women, used similarly to “Mrs.” or “madam.”
Profiles of these artists are submitted by members of their own communities, people who know firsthand the value and influence of their work. These advocates wish to share the story of each artist with the greater world.
Here are three examples of profiles community members submitted to the wiki.
Ni Luh Gde Vony Dewi Sri Partani
Born in Denpasar, June 28, 1978, Ni Luh Gde Vony Dewi Sri Partani taught herself to paint. She is one of many female Balinese painters who paint “to nurture their talent, obtain additional income, and cope with life’s struggles.” Increasingly, she uses the internet to bring her work to a global audience.
“I am inspired by strong and tough Balinese women,” Vony says. “Despite pressure from a patriarchal culture, today Balinese women have more time and space to work and to realize their potential.”
In Bali, we believe in a principle known as desa, kala, patra. Literally, this means place, time, and circumstance, or in other words, that things must change and adjust in order to thrive. “Women can be tough and strong, be modern artists,” Vony says, “and still carry out their traditional duties as Balinese women.”
Vony believes that women often face a stigma that sometimes discredits their work or role in the arts, but that this stigma should not discourage her. Instead, it acts as a trigger to create, which in turn leads to greater respect. “What Balinese women ultimately need is appreciation,” Vony explains. “Give us appreciation for the work we create.”
The wiki and the community member who wrote Vony’s profile provide an opportunity for more people to appreciate her work—locally, nationally, and internationally.
Jro Putu was born in Mengwi, Badung, Bali, July 4, 1979. She is a balian, a medium, who serves her community through the practice of traditional medicine, the knowledge to heal physical and mental ailments. Balians draw from two worlds, the conscious and visible world we call sekala and the psychic, abstract, and unseen world we call niskala.
Clients may ask about a newborn, from whom the baby was reincarnated, or why someone died. To find out, Jro Putu sends the client’s spirit to communicate with their family. Through her work, Jro Putu provides explanations for life’s chaos and comfort to families of her community. Jro Putu was trained in these skills by her aunt and took over her aunt’s practice after she died.
She understands that her presence in the community is particularly needed since so few women train to become balians. Jro Putu feels on equal footing as men, even as she understands the need to balance this work with family obligations. The wiki lets more people know about her beyond the word-of-mouth recommendation of people who have benefited from her powers.
Catur Yudha Hariani
After graduating from high school, Catur Yudha Hariani became an environmental activist. She built momentum for a community focus on waste management through educational workshops. Her work inspires many communities to strategize and innovate, treat household waste products, and act together to safeguard Bali’s ecological future. Her work motivates young people to take up the environmental mantle.
Having worked on such issues for twenty-four years, Catur believes that women must play an active role in decision making within the sector. According to her, the biggest victims of ecological damage are women and children. So, it is women’s voices that we sorely need to hear from when creating regulations related to such issues. But, in Bali, such community movements are still dominated by men, as women are still fully involved in daily housework.
Catur criticizes the low levels of appreciation for all that women do. For example, a woman who is married and chooses to stay at home is encouraged to list her profession as “housewife” on her identity card. However, many women undertake double professions. Apart from housework, they may craft masterful baskets of bamboo. This lack of respect for female professionals obscures the role of women in the social sphere.
She says her choice of activism over housework has not resulted in any negative stigma. The people of Bali are uniquely open, tolerant, and appreciative of her environmental work, she believes.
Assisting the community on environmental issues, Catur sees that the internet, social media, and other technology has truly helped the movement she spearheads. She sees technology as a tool to more clearly understand what is happening in the environment and society.
Catur’s most recent work focuses on empowering women in rural areas by teaching them the dangers of plastic trash and unclean water. Through a simple approach, she encourages women to replace thin plastic bags with reusable ones. She invites women to limit waste through recycling, raising awareness to the things we can all do to keep the environment beautiful.
BASAbali Wiki began life as an online Balinese-Indonesian-English dictionary, but as our communities shaped the platform, we added features like our bookshelves, a people’s history, and performances of music and dance. Originally, the community’s entries were published only in Balinese, but writers soon expanded the project’s scope to include other languages spoken in Indonesia. These additions have made BASAbali Wiki a model for communities throughout the world.
The artists’ directory will continue to evolve through the needs and inspirations of the community, bringing more people’s stories to light and ushering in a deeper understanding of the diversity of human experience. In the process, BASAbali/BASAibu elevates and validates the work of artists, providing greater exposure, better opportunities for international clients, and higher stature within the community.
What excites me most is how the community itself decides what is important, using modern tools to actualize their intentions.
“I am very happy,” said Ni Luh Gde Vony Dewi Sri Partani, “because from this article in the virtual library, I can convey messages and inspire women, not only in Bali, to continue working in any field so that we can always spread positive energy, for harmony around us.”
Ni Nyoman Clara Listya Dewi is a National Geographic Early Career Grantee and the director of communication at BASAbali Wiki.