I was walking down the corridors of Beringharjo Market in Yogyakarta when I saw them: women with thinning grey hair carrying sacks of various things on their backs. The sacks towered high above their heads and their backs were bent from carrying them. And still they walked, following whichever person is pointing them to their mode of transportation in the parking lot. It was a sight I could never forget and I couldn’t capture in photo with the hustle and bustle going on in those narrow corridors.
An old woman carrying a tall stack of items on her back – how often do you see that?
As I stood waiting on the rooftop parking lot of the market for our rented car driver to pick us up, I saw three of these women sitting by the market entrance behind me and staring at me with curiosity and wonder. The funny thing was that I was actually just as curious about them as they might be about me. So I approached them cautiously and asked,
“Excuse me, Ma’am. Will it be okay if I take a photo of you?”
They said yes, straightened up as much as they could, hushed each other to pay attention to the camera. The lady seated furthest on the right scooted a little more to the side. She didn’t seem too keen on smiling for the camera and decided to look away. I understood and decided not to push her to it. I counted to three, pressed the shutter and snapped the photo.
I motioned my camera’s LCD to them.
“What do you think?”
They pointed at their camera selves, smiled and spoke among themselves in Javanese. Just then, another woman carrying a sack on her bag passed by. They waved at her, asked her how she was doing, and made a joke in Javanese to which they laughed together. I smiled at the woman politely and said hello, she smiled back and started on her way to one of the cars in the parking lot.
There was silence for a while but then curiosity got the best of me and I asked the three women sitting next to me.
“Bu, do you carry stuff like that too?”
“Yes, we do that everyday,” the older woman said calmly.
“Everyday? So you spend all day in this market, yes?”
The younger woman nodded.
“We usually arrive here at 5 AM. We do our work and then we go back home at 5 PM, sometimes later.”
“So you lift stuff up all day? But those sacks must be heavy!”
The woman furthest to the right laughed and said,
“They are. They’re usually about 30-50 kilograms.”
I stood there, trying to swallow her words. I can’t imagine how tough lifting 50 kilograms of anything must be.
And have I mentioned that their hair is already turning grey which means they’re probably middle-aged by now?
“But you receive payment for lifting those sacks, don’t you?”
“Yes,” the older woman said, somewhat entertained by my shocked expression. “But people pay us per job, not per kilogram.”
What. The. Hell?
I didn’t dare ask how much they make in a day because that’s quite an uncomfortable topic to talk about in Indonesia. Plus, they were actually quite curious about me. The woman who didn’t want to be in the picture asked me,
“Are you a journalist, Mbak? Or are you one of those TV people looking for interviews?”
“No, Bu. I’m still a student.”
This woman then motioned at her friends to scoot over.
“Let the Mbak sit,” she said.
But then I heard the honks from our car and knew I had to go.
I thanked these strong women and said goodbye to them, wishing I’d had more time to sit and just talk to them, learning about their lives and why there were more old women doing the very physically demanding job of carrying goods around the market then younger women or men. But there was a flight I needed to catch and I knew I would come back for their story someday.
It was from Mr. Tri, our driver that I learned more about these women. As I shared this conversation with him, he said,
“Those women are very strong. They commute from areas such as Bantul and Kulonprogo everyday to get to work here. And they usually travel by bus or ride a bike. Even when they work, they don’t set a certain price that people should pay them – they let their customers decide how much they want to pay. For some women, this job is their main source of income, but for others, this is just a job they do because they want to keep working, they don’t want to stop moving.”
In Indonesia, it’s quite a huge part of the culture to look down on women and view us as the “weaker being that needs to be protected.” It’s something that not only men believe, but my fellow Indonesian women also often believe. Thus, a lot of women in Indonesia play the weaker one, avoiding physically demanding tasks for one reason: “Because I’m a woman. I’m too weak to do these things. This is too heavy for me. I can’t.”
The female porters of Beringharjo Market have proven that women can handle physically demanding tasks. And women should never, ever be looked down upon nor should they ever look down on themselves and make excuses to avoid doing what they can do.
The women of Beringharjo Market are proof that women can be strong and do what men do.