In the 63 years of her life, Yasmine Z Shahab has had many identity-forming experiences.
The anthropologist and activist adhered to her Catholic school discipline in Jakarta, got down and dirty with field studies in numerous villages in the archipelago, and discovered the roots of her physical traits in the Arabian Peninsula.
Yet the friendly woman has always been sure of what she is. “I identify myself as a Betawi kid. If not, what am I?” Yasmine said, smiling.
More than simply identifying herself with the culture often referred to as a Jakarta original, the University of Indonesia lecturer is also known as an expert on the subject and a recognized member of various Betawi organizations such as the Betawi Culture Institution (LKB) and the Betawi Women’s Organization (PWB).
The subject of being Betawi is somewhat dear to Yasmine who was born and raised in the capital city surrounded by what she recalled as a “very Betawi” culture.
The culture — and its hometown Jakarta — she remembers as a warm, pluralist one.
She recalled the evenings spent in her childhood home in Taman Sari, West Jakarta, during which the residents of Malay, Chinese and Arab descent would sit in front of their neat row of houses and mingle.
“On Lebaran [Idul Fitri], the Chinese would come to our house and bring layered cakes. They would return home bringing ketupat [rice cakes usually served during Idul Fitri]. On New Year’s, we would bring layered cakes and go home with Chinese cakes … and sweets,” Yasmine said.
The Jakartans of Arab descent, like Yasmine who refers to herself as part of the fourth generation of Yemenis who came to the archipelago, blend particularly well with local residents, perhaps due to similarities in religious beliefs and rituals. They blend in so well that she joked that people refer to her family as “the Arabs who cannot speak Arabic”.
Her family, whose mixes of races and ethnicities includes Dutch and Sundanese, can be considered open-minded, even by today’s standards. They enrolled her in Catholic schools starting from the primary level and they never objected to her going to the cathedral to accompany her best friend who regularly went there to pray.
Yasmine said she would read or do her homework as her then-best friend, who aspired to be a nun, prayed.
“We were taught that the things we do not believe in are [considered] knowledge for us,” she said.
Yasmine added that one of her cousins studied the differences between the Quran and the Bible and, despite being a Muslim, took his child to the cathedral to explain the differences between faiths.
The years she spent in Catholic schools did leave their marks, but in the form of discipline and a meticulous way of dressing. For awhile she was so used to wearing shoes and socks that she would put them on even to pick something up from the nearby warung.
That, however, soon changed when Yasmine began to study in the anthropology department at the University of Indonesia. She went from the girl who was constantly teased because of her socks to one used to spending weeks in remote villages for research purposes.
Her anthropology studies started out as something “accidental”, she told The Jakarta Post.
“I actually wanted to enter the law faculty. I loved to watch movies and debates on law,” Yasmine said.
However, she and her family received advice from education figure and once-education minister Fuad Hassan, who told her that the law faculty was too crowded and that she should take up anthropology instead.
Her final paper was a piece of quantitative research on local Arabs. Almost instantly after graduating in 1975, the late Koentjaranigrat, who is at times dubbed the “Father of Indonesian anthropology”, made her a lecturer.
Yasmine proceeded to study demography, first in the University’s economics department, then at the Australian National University (ANU). Her thesis about the position of Betawi women, which was made using available data at ANU, stated that Betawi women were lagging behind in education compared to others.
Upon returning to Indonesia, however, she discovered that members of the Betawi Women’s Organization (PWB) opposed her conclusion. According to Yasmine, the differing opinions were largely due to the research data, which was mostly gathered in the then-peripheral area of Condet, East Jakarta.
“I was right according to the sample I used. PWB was right because Betawi people are not the same as Condet people. The PWB are Betawi Kota people, the Betawi elites. So during my S3 [doctorate] I wrote about Betawi elites,” she said.
Despite the disagreement, Yasmine, who completed her Ph.D. at the University of London in 1994, ended up making friends with members of the PWB, including noted Betawi figure Emma Amalia Agus Bisri. She also became a member of other Betawi-related organizations.
Over the years, Yasmine has written an array of scientific works on subjects such as the history of Jakarta’s Menteng area, the Chinese barongsai art and the Betawi Lenong stage art.
Yasmine’s current activity thus revolves around Betawi organizations, academic life and her family. A few years ago, she also made an “accidental” trip to Yemen when she had initially been planning to go to China. Far from feeling like a homecoming, she said she found the country to be something “completely new” to her.
One thing she discovered to be familiar when sitting amid the bustle of the market there, thanks to the freedom she had as a non-local woman, was the friendly nature of the Yemeni people.
Yasmine was intrigued as well by their habit of sitting on their porches, which she likened to that of Malay people.
Another thing that came across as familiar to her were the faces of the people there.
She found out then why some people from the Middle East could easily identify her as being of Yemeni descent. “I felt like I was among family members. They all looked like us,” Yasmine said, smiling.
In the end, her ultimate homecoming and identity is Jakarta and Betawi, both the centers of her professional life. And despite her “accidental” entrance in the field of anthropology, Yasmine is already an established name and will likely be even more in demand in the future, as she said that the interest in Betawi culture is increasing.
“The interest in studying Betawi culture is on the rise partly thanks to the Betawi people themselves ... they used to be objects but now they are subjects and they display their identity, existence and power in Jakarta,” she said.
If that is correct, then this Betawi woman must be ahead of the time.