Resisting cougartown: Perspectives on the older woman-younger man marriage model in Indonesia

Marriages where females are older than males, face scorn in the interplay between age, wage and gender roles in Indonesian society.

By Anne Hwarng

Love knows no bounds. Age is just a number. Yet, just earlier this month, social affairs minister Khofifah Indar Parawansa deplored the marriage between a 16-year-old boy with a 71-year-old woman in Lengkiti Sub-district, Ogan Komering Ulu regency, South Sumatra.

It seems the model for relationships where older women date younger men have been gaining traction in the star world for some time now. The romance between Nicole Scherzinger, then 29, in her long drawn out and highly publicised relationship with Lewis Hamilton, then 23, is probably one of the most high-profile “cougar” romances the celebrity world has seen in the past 10 years or so. Hollywood has also seen the likes of Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher in its track record of couples where women are more senior in age than men.

Still, for countries with a more conservative heritage like Indonesia, the social acceptability of older women marrying younger men is still very low. The intersection between age, wage and gender in Indonesian society reinforces the social stigma against ‘cougar’ romances.

Preeminence of the male breadwinner model

 The internalisation of the norm of older men marrying younger women is largely shaped by how people view gender roles in marriage in Indonesia.

In a fieldwork of 1761 later-year students enrolled in seven universities in Jakarta and five universities in Makassar back in 2004, it was found that while most students indicated that a dual-earner household model was ideal for them, the popular view is still for wives to be secondary earners.

According to economist Guillermo Dominguez’s research on median incomes by age, wage is directly proportional to age with individuals generally earning more with age. It seems then that the gendered labour market structure has great implications for accepted models of marriage in Indonesian society where men are expected to earn more than women to provide for the family.

In recent years, more women have been entering the workforce and the percentage of educated females in Indonesia has far exceeded that of males. According to the 2010 Population Census for those in the 25-29 age group, there were 76 tertiary-educated men for every 100 tertiary-educated women. Similarly, UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) data on Indonesia in 2010 reflected that 5.1% of females with a diploma as compared to a mere 3.2% of males.

Yet, even with increased gender parity in education, women still see themselves as secondary contributors to family finances. According to the same survey, they anticipate lower wages than their male counterparts studying in the same faculty.

This preeminence of the male breadwinner mindset in Indonesian society thus makes it more social acceptable for older men to marry younger girls as older men are often seen as more ‘financial stable’ to fulfil their roles as the male breadwinner.

In fact, this model is so deeply embedded in Indonesian society to the extent that it has been institutionalised even in the country’s marriage law No.1/1974, for instance. In Article 34, it is stated that “the husband is responsible for protecting his wife and providing the basic needs of his household”. The “cougar” model, though feasible, leaves little room for men to take on their socially expected roles as provider and leader of the household in a society like Indonesia’s.

Woman’s ‘Kodrat’ – the feminine ideal of Indonesia

The averse reactions to older women marrying younger men in Indonesian society can also be attributed to notions of feminine identity in Indonesia.

The gender role of females in a highly traditional society like that of Indonesia’s is largely coloured by an age-old belief in the ‘Kodrat Winita’ (woman’s nature) or woman’s God-given position as primary caregiver in the domestic realm. This feminine ideal largely characterises what roles women aspire to and also the expectations society projects on women.

24-year-old Erin, a science student in Makassar, stated “I’d like both [myself and my husband] to work, but a woman must know her Kodrat! We must be devoted to our husband, devoted to our children.”

Such a feminised ideal of the woman as belonging to the domestic sphere in turn affects the way age differences in marriage between male and female are structured in Indonesia. Because the Kodrat is seen as a natural role given to and expected of all women, less emphasis is placed on the financial stability and independence of women in Indonesian society. It is therefore socially acceptable for men to marry younger women, even if they lack financial stability, because their primary role is to fulfil the Kodrat and they are not expected to be financial providers.

Wage, age and gender Roles

With the deeply entrenched male breadwinner model in Indonesian society and role of wives as secondary earners, women marry up — both in terms of wage and by extension, age. The ‘Kodrat Winita’ then serves to further reinforce the definition of female identity in Indonesian society. Women are not expected to be financially stable or independent but just to be good caretakers of the domestic realm, a role they could fulfil even at a young age.

It is no surprise then, that the Indonesian marriage landscape has not seen a fair share of its own Nicoles nor Lewises. Till the default male breadwinner model is challenged and femininity extends beyond the ‘Kodrat Winita’, the ‘cougar’ shall continue to be kept at bay.