Devil in woman's clothes?

Given the uproar she has caused despite her unremarkable dancing talents and rather homely appearance, one could be forgiven for thinking she was the reincarnation of Mata Hari. But unlike the Dutch-born woman who exchanged a rather pitiful life in the Dutch East Indies -- the Indonesia of today -- for a life of glamor and luxury in Europe, Inul Daratista does not aspire to be a courtesan or spy. The only passion she has ever shown since she was in junior high school was for singing dangdut -- a local musical genre with strong Indian influences.

Inul, whose real name is Ainur Rokhimah, was born into a simple family in the village of Gempol, near Pasuruan, East Java. It was here that she began her professional singing career and gradually developed the ""drilling"" style of hip movements for which she is presently famous -- or notorious, depending on one's proclivities.

In any case, from the paltry sum of Rp 10,000 per show in those early days, her rate gradually rose as she moved from villages to towns, to cities and finally to Jakarta, the country's magnet for Indonesians seeking to make it big. With fame and fortune, however, comes controversy.

While the number of her fans runs into the hundreds of thousands, possibly the millions, across the country, others have publicly deplored her sensual onstage hip rotations in the strongest possible terms. Rhoma Irama, who is not only one of the most senior and accomplished dangdut musicians -- many Indonesians refer to him as the King of Dangdut -- but a respected Muslim cleric as well, said Inul's gyrations ""corrupt the nation and encourage rape"".

When Inul recently paid her respects to King Rhoma at his home, he reportedly called her movements ""pornographic"" and strongly reprimanded her for ""throwing dangdut music in the mud, tearing apart the nation's social fabric and encouraging illicit sex and rape"".

He also forbade her to sing any of his compositions as well as those of members of the Association of Malay Music Artists, which he chairs, although this latter ban was later denied by Rhoma.

Rhoma's stance on Inul's ""drilling"" was, predictably, shared by clerics of the Indonesian Ulemas Council and several other Muslim groups. Significantly, however, former president Abdurrahman Wahid, who is the former chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, defended Inul's right to freedom of expression, ""as long as she stays within the law"", adding that the courts were the only institution in the country that had the authority to decide what she could or could not do -- a view that is shared by many prominent individuals and no less than 92 human rights and civil liberty organizations across the country.

As far as the public is concerned, a recent poll by Tempo magazine found that by far the majority of Indonesians defend Inul's right to gyrate onstage, even though almost 60 percent of respondents considered the movements ""erotic"". More than 78 percent of respondents were against banning Inul from performing in public, and 55 percent saw Rhoma's tirade against Inul as ""overreacting"" and motivated by the envy of an aging star for a newcomer who has stolen the limelight.

In the end, as far as the public is concerned, it seems that what Inul's present saga amounts to is the oppression of the weak and powerless, as represented by Inul Daratista, by the strong and powerful, as embodied by Rhoma Irama and company. In more scholarly terminology, maybe it amounts to the suppression of freedom of expression, or in feminist terminology maybe it is gender oppression in a male-dominated society. Whatever the case, it seems that Indonesians are still a long way from coming to grips with the prerequisites for justice and equality that democracy brings.

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