Textiles as Women’s Property

For most women, in addition to indicating their group affiliations, batik cloth and jewelry have been the traditional means of accruing property. Javanese women have always been accorded certain proprietary rights by customary law, even as these are delimited to a certain extent by Islamic tenets.

Though women of Arabian descent have often been presented as similar to the natives, their rights were much more restricted than those of local women. If a woman of Arabian descent had any property, it was administered by her father, husband, or failing these, by the Council of Religious Scholars (Encyclopaedie van Nederlandsch Indie, 1919; van den Berg, 1892). As a wife she could easily be divorced. Only the gifts of cloth and jewelry received from the groom’s family at the wedding were hers to use as she pleased.

More or less comparable circumstances obtained for Chinese Peranakan women. Especially in well-to-do families extensive amounts of batik cloth formed part of a bride’s dowry and also of the gift that was offered to the bride’s mother in exchange for her daughter. The mother-in-law had first choice; the rest fell to the future wife, who also could inherit textiles that were left by her mother, grandmother, or great-aunts (Boachi, 1852; Veldhuisen, 1993). Women were excluded by the patrilineal Chinese system from a share in the inheritance of both their fathers and husbands. Moreover, many Chinese men had secondary wives, who were even lower in status than the first wife. Therefore, clothing and jewelry were a Peranakan women’s only private property.

Women categorized as European were quite diverse in background; creoles, mestizos, recognized illegitimate children, and Asian wives were all officially identified as Dutch, although socially there might remain huge distance. According to Dutch law, a woman could be named sole heir of a man’s property (Taylor, 1983). Therefore, the legal wives and daughters of old creole and mestizo families who belonged to the elite generally had recourse to resources other than clothing. Nevertheless, ther Asian backgrounds made the display of expensive cloth and especially jewelry of the greatest importance to express status. At least, clear and specific rules obtained for all groups of well-to-do women. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the rights of many of the women associated with the lower echelons of Europeans were not so clear. Most Europeans never considered legalizing their partnerships with their local-born nyai, or housekeepers. She herself, generally of lowly background and deficient education, was in no position to insist upon legal marriage, although this would immediately have made the “native party” eligible to be declared equal before the Dutch law (van den Berg, 1892). The principal obstacle was her illiteracy, which hampered adoption oh the Christian faith, part and parcel of legal marriage. The children born out these alliances were in many cases not officially recognized. If they were recognized, the sons might be sent to Holland to get an education, while the daughters were married off when barely in their teens. The possession of hoard of batik cloth and jewelry, easy to pawn or pack, was therefore insurance against times of need for most women of mixed backgrounds, including those officially belonging to the European group.

SOURCE: Heringa, H. (2000). Batik pasisir as Mestizo costume. In Fabric of enchantment: Batik from the north coast of Java. (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art).


Encyclopaedie van Nederlandsch Indie. (1919). (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff; Leiden: E.J. Brill).

Van den Berg, L.W.C. (1892). De afwijkingen van het Mohammedaansche familie-en erfrecht op Java en Madoera. (BKI 41).

Boachi, A. (1856). Mededelingen over de Chineezen op het eiland Java. (BKI 4).

Veldhuisen, H.C. (1993). Batik Belanda 1840-1940. (Jakarta: Gaya Favorit).

Taylor, J.G. (1983). The social world of Batavia: European and Eurasian in Dutch Asia. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press).

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