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The late Javanese novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006) once stated, “I don't write to give joy to readers but to give them a conscience.” Growing up in the politically and culturally repressive atmosphere of the occupied islands now known as Indonesia, the occupation of which by the Dutch was followed by decades of dictatorship by Indonesian strongmen, Pramoedya was an observant and sympathetic chronicler of the price nations pay for adhering to ancient and immoral customs. Pramoedya’s best known works was a series of novels involving a journalist and political activist named Minke, whose life roughly paralleled the author’s, including Pramoedya’s imprisonment by the Dutch for anti-colonial activities.
Inem is not of this vein. Rather, it tells the story of an eight-year-old girl named Inem. Narrated by a six-year-old boy named Gus Muk, Pramoedya’s story is an indictment of the cultural and social restraints that severely disadvantaged girls and women in Indonesian – or, more specifically, Javanese – society. As a boy, Gus Muk’s perspective is naturally different from that of Inem, as his masculine gender has placed him in a position of superiority over the older Inem, his close friend. The young boy is witness to the indignities to which Inem is subjected both by virtue of her gender and by the fact that her father is a degenerate gambler and petty criminal whose financial plight has condemned Inem to be a child bride, a status that has the advantage for her family of providing a dowry to them from the groom’s family. At one point, Gus Muk overhears his mother state:
“The need the dowry. It’s the only way they can get money.”
Inem, then, has been reduced to little more than human chattel, condemned to a life of servitude at the hands of her 17-year old husband, Markaband. That Markaband would prove a physically abusive spouse who eventually divorces Inem further depresses the girl’s status in a society that looks down upon such women. Inem’s friend, Gus Muk, exists in Pramoedya’s story as a narrative device who provides the perspective of the dominant culture in Java yet who feels the emotional pain of Inem’s plight.
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