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Muntini Cooper thought inviting families and neighbours to her wedding in the small village of Trenggalek in East Java, Indonesia, would save her from assumptions about her marriage’s authenticity. She was wrong.
“I thought it would have clearly proven that we were legitimately married, but it wasn’t enough,” she told ABC.
In 2003, after separating from her Indonesian ex-partner, Ms Cooper met a Caucasian Australian man, Gary Cooper, who was working for an Indonesian mining company.
The two fell in love and decided to get married a year later.
They lived in Trenggalek for about eight years before moving to Balikpapan city in East Kalimantan.
While living in a small village, Ms Cooper often faced questions about where she “found” a “bule” – the Indonesian word for foreigner.
“They thought I was working as a migrant worker overseas,” she said.
“When a [Indonesian] woman gets married to a foreigner, they are assumed to be ‘naughty’ or only taking advantage of it.”
Ms Cooper said when they were building a house together, people would talk about the possibility of her husband leaving before the house was finished.
Five years after their marriage, the couple was blessed with twins.
They had white skin, pink cheeks and a bit of blonde hair when they were babies, she said.
It was a happy time only to be ruined by hurtful questions from random strangers.
“Wherever I went, people always asked if I was their babysitter,” she said.
“Or they would say ‘your husband must be a foreigner, right? That’s why you have pretty babies.'”
At one point, Ms Cooper decided to shut herself away.
She stopped meeting people outside or leaving the house to avoid the stigma.
“I thought this was the only way,” she said.
Breaking the stigmas
Ms Cooper’s experience is not unique to Indonesians marrying into another culture.
Yani Lauwoie, a communication consultant in Australia, was asked whether she was a “bule hunter” when she got married to her Australian husband, Shannon Smith.
At the time, she only replied with a joke.
But as questions about her marriage continued, she soon started feeling like she was dependent on her husband despite seeing herself as an independent woman.
“Indonesian women who marry Caucasian men, in particular, often get stereotypes which place us as the inferiors,” Ms Lauwoie said.
“It’s as if the relationship that we have is based on motives other than love, like financial motives, to have a better life or to fully depend our lives on the man.”
Tired of facing these stigmas, she decided to discuss the issue publicly on a podcast called Mixed Couples.
It’s hosted alongside two other Indonesian women Mira Rochyadi and Sylvia Mira, who have encountered similar experiences.
Through the series, they try to break these misconceptions and educate listeners by inviting people in interracial relationships from around the world to answer taboo questions surrounding the topic in Bahasa Indonesia.
Ms Lauwoie said the podcast, which has been airing for almost a year, still has “a very small” number of listeners, but has attracted the attention of people from more than 10 countries.
“We have got some listeners who are not from our circle reaching out on social media and by email … they helped us with ideas and some even offered to become a speaker,” she said.
“That’s made us think that our content [and issues being talked about] are relatable for them.”
Stigma towards interracial couples is a long-standing problem in Indonesia.
It triggered the creation of a society dedicated to people with a mixed marriage background called PerCa Indonesia, which stands for mixed marriage in Bahasa Indonesia.
For 14 years, the organisation has been advocating rights, hosting seminars on visas and citizenships, and providing consultation for its members.
The organisation started as a group of 46 and now has more than 2,000 members, with most foreigners coming from Australia, England and the United States.
“There were some stigmas about marrying foreigners to climb up the social ladder,” Melva Nababan Sullivan, one of the founders and active advocates of PerCa, said.
“But now many things have changed and people are more welcoming towards mixed marriages as it’s considered part of the Indonesian community.”
Views rooted in colonialism
The stigma around mixed marriage is highly influenced by the values that existed during colonialism, Yulida Pangastuti, a lecturer of childhood, gender and sexuality at Gadjah Mada University, told the ABC.
“According to various works of literature, the native women are often seen through the hyper sensuality lens, [they] use their sexuality to seduce European men and become mistresses and sex workers for the sake of economic purpose,” she said.
“Meanwhile, foreign men, especially white-skinned, are seen as a symbol of power that provides political and economic advantages.”
Ms Pangastuti said initiatives like the podcast are a great way to highlight issues surrounding mixed marriages.
“Much information was discussed in a manner that makes them easy to understand by listeners, including the advocacy on rights of double citizenship for the mixed marriage family,” she said.
She said the perception of mixed couples that are most talked about come from the middle class, but in reality they are often from the middle to lower class.
“For example, Indonesian migrant workers who get married or have a family with another migrant worker,” she said.
“Many of the children born in this group don’t have birth certificates, neither any access to social assistance … and have to face the immigration requirements which is often unfriendly towards mid-lower class people.”
Other aspects that she highlighted included gender and race, where the conversation about mixed marriages must also involve Indonesian men and those with darker skinned partners which she considered to be more “invisible”.
More than just the stigma
It’s not just the stigma that interracial married couples in Indonesia are facing.
Ms Sullivan said PerCa had taken issues such as living permits, citizenship and property ownership for their members to parliament.
They managed to have some legal breakthroughs, including giving Indonesians a right to sponsor their foreign partner’s visa indefinitely after sponsoring them for 10 years and a right for children born to Indonesian women to choose between two citizenships when they turn 18, including three years grace period until they turn 21.
“When an Indonesian citizen is married to a foreign citizen, their problems are not just cultural but also social gap and religion among other things,” Ms Sullivan said.
“These are so many things that need to be adjusted and aligned.”
Ms Cooper, who now lives in Perth, couldn’t agree more.
“There are more important things that we must think about, which is how we can teach our kids the best things out of the two cultures,” she said.
“So we are much more concerned about these things than just [the assumptions] that we’re proud to be a foreigner’s wife.”