Restricting and Shaping Women’s International Migrations from Indonesia

By Carol Chan

This piece is part of APLA’s Speaking Justice to Power Series: On the Gender and the Sexual Politics of Contemporary Patriarchal Ethnonationalist Authoritarianism, edited by María Lis Baiocchi.

Cases of abuse and violence against Indonesian migrant domestic workers abroad regularly make headlines nationally and internationally. In 2015, the Indonesian President Joko Widodo publicly expressed feeling “brokenhearted” and “ashamed” on behalf of the nation regarding the abuse of Indonesian migrant women. He announced plans to stop sending domestic workers abroad, in order to protect the nation’s “pride and dignity.” The government has also banned women’s migration to 21 Middle Eastern countries. Apart from these state laws, the Council of Indonesian Ulama (MUI) also issued a religious decree (fatwa) in 2000 that transnational female labor migration is un-Islamic, unless the migrant is explicitly given permission by her family or husband, or is accompanied by a trusted male kin or group of women.

Fig 1. Former migrant women in Central Java attend a government-funded workshop to learn baking skills and the basics of entrepreneurship as an alternative to migration. Photograph by Carol Chan.

Yet, Indonesian women have compelling reasons to migrate. As Yanti, a young Javanese return migrant told me in 2014, “[My family] did not have much. I saw how other families were improving their lives because of migrants’ money. I felt I must also migrate to help my parents. I didn’t want to see them left behind…. [I] wanted them to have better lives.” Furthermore, Indonesian women do not decide to migrate in a cultural vacuum. Their labor migrations are paradoxically actively promoted and highly regulated by the Indonesian government. Migrants are endearingly termed “foreign exchange heroes” for their economic contributions to families and the nation (Chan 2014). Such efforts to control and regulate women’s international mobility evidence aspects of patriarchal ethnonationalism in contemporary Indonesia.

Many of the country’s estimated 9 million international migrants are employed as domestic workers. These migrations have afforded some women more opportunities to financially provide for their children and ageing parents, as well as the possibility to escape or negotiate social pressures and stigma regarding marriage, divorce, single motherhood, and homosexuality, among others. Nevertheless, partly due to a backlash against women’s migrations, migration has also created more responsibilities and pressures for women regarding care duties to their families, as migrant or non-migrant mothers, wives, and daughters. Additionally, migrant workers and activists have argued that the migration bans have not significantly reduced the rate of violations against migrants. Instead, they have increased the costs and risks for women who try to migrate via alternative illicit channels

I conducted fieldwork as an anthropologist in Central Java in some of these migrant-origin villages and witnessed the contradictory backlash to women’s migrations. On the one hand, migrants’ families, peers, and neighbors recognized that migrant women’s remittances could finance small businesses, better infrastructure for houses, pay for the elderly’s medical fees and for children’s higher education. On the other hand, many residents harshly criticized what they perceived as the “collateral damage” of such migrations—several opined that the absence of migrant mothers and wives led to more adultery, divorces, and  misbehaving children, in addition to expressing concern that a significant number of migrants returned sick, dead, or simply “disappeared” abroad. In response to such concerns about the social impact of women’s migrations on families and the local community, some men sought actively to reinforce their authority, particularly as husbands. They demanded for their migrant wives to return home despite these women’s wishes, while others publicly emphasized that they had “permitted” their wives to migrate, thus framing women’s mobility in terms of male agency. Several village administrators and civil servants also acknowledged and supported the “right” of husbands and fathers to allow or stop women’s migrations. 

This backlash to women’s migrations and remittances must be contextualized within the way that the Indonesian state frames Indonesian women’s citizenship and migrations in terms of their gendered familial roles as mothers, daughters, and wives. When the militaristic New Order state led by then-President Suharto encouraged temporary transnational female labor migration in the 1980s as part of its development agenda, this appeared to contradict the state’s earlier Islamic and nationalistic kodrat discourses. Broadly, kodrat referred to the idea of fixed gender roles where men are presumed to be breadwinners while women have a duty to care for the family. Nevertheless, by the 1990s, the state articulated women’s income-earning migrations in terms of familial duty, where their remittances would also support the “‘national family’s’ larger goal of economic development” (Silvey 2004: 253). In this view, women’s migrations would reinforce rather than challenge the existing gender dynamics and kodrat discourses.

The explicit attempts to control women’s mobility, however, do not compare to the more complex ways that stigma and gossip about women migrants’ behavior contribute to how women themselves experience social surveillance abroad and at home, and how some may internalize very high expectations to be viewed as a pious, responsible, and dutiful migrant daughter, sister, wife, or mother. Gossip circulated in the village as well as on social media about the sexual lives and leisure activities of these “uncontrolled” Indonesian migrant women abroad. Thus, when women return “unsuccessful”—with debt or little savings, exhibiting signs of physical or psychological abuse, or returning to family problems ostensibly caused by migration—their failures were oftentimes attributed to their frivolous spending abroad, lack of mental or emotional strength, and/or to their own inappropriate behavior. While rape and sexual assault are already taboo topics, survivors may find it even harder to speak about their experiences as migrant women due to the existing negative and sexualized stereotypes of migrant women.

The migratory bans and public discourses against women’s migrations do not only harm women. They also impact migrants’ husbands and fathers who stay behind, in generating feelings of shame and inadequacy as supposed “breadwinners” or persons of authority in the household, positions that are increasingly difficult to maintain due to the higher demand for the informal labor of women abroad, combined with the fact that more women are able to migrate at “no cost” (i.e. indebted to migration brokers) as compared to men who have to pay these costs upfront (Chan 2018a). The exploitation, abuse, and fraud that migrant men experience are also less visible and arguably less sympathetic due to the public focus on migrant women.

Nevertheless, Indonesian women continue to migrate. They continue to take risks to work abroad in order to financially support their families, and/or to mitigate various forms of stigma they experience. They may also simply wish to migrate for the experience (pengalaman), to learn about the world and other cultures. Those who return as “failures” joke about their experiences as “tourists” abroad, thus criticizing the global inequality of mobilities and the cultural and financial capital shaping such movements (Chan 2018b). While some attempt to counter stigmatized discourses about migrant women by strong efforts to conform to the ideal type, others choose to openly defy these expectations altogether and migrate without the “permissions” of their male kin, secure in the knowledge that their families will eventually appreciate their financial contributions. One example is the case of Anisa, whose remittances funded the building of a big concrete house where her husband and children live. Before re-migrating without her husband’s approval, she publicly asked him for a divorce, saying that she had “worked hard for this family, for the children.” 

Fig 2. Modern concrete house in a Central Javanese village funded by migrant remittances. Photograph by Carol Chan.

Some migrant women who returned home at their husband’s request spoke openly about their reluctance to return, and how they had felt “at home” overseas, thus explicitly rejecting stereotypes of the self-sacrificial migrant mother and wife. Although in the minority, some women who fall pregnant by their boyfriend abroad or because of rape have bravely returned to their villages or cities with foreign-looking children, sometimes with the support of exceptional family members who defend them against social stigma. Such situations are radical considering that for others in similar situations, illegal and risky abortions, suicide, or “disappearing” (not returning home) are the more common alternatives (Constable 2014).

Indonesian migrant women also participate in mass public protests in countries where they work, alongside other migrant workers, to demand better working and migratory conditions and to oppose attempts to restrict their international movements whether by Indonesia or their countries of work. They also provide one another with emotional and economic support as fellow migrant women away from their families. Families of migrants who have been injured or assaulted abroad also actively seek institutional compensation and accountability via protests and self-organization in Indonesian cities, oftentimes alongside national non-governmental organizations such as Serikat Buruh Migran Indonesia (SBMI). Together, these migrants and their families show that they will not be told where to go (or not) and how to get there. They actively participate in shaping the terms and conditions of the movements, work, and lives of Indonesians abroad. 

Carol Chan is Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Academy of Christian Humanism University in Chile. She earned her PhD in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh in 2016, and is the author of In Sickness and in Wealth, Migration, Gendered Morality, and Central Java (2018, Indiana University Press). Her research interests include, among others, multinational migrations, citizenship practices, and interethnic conviviality.


Chan, Carol. (2014). “Gendered morality and development narratives: The case of female labor migration from Indonesia.” Sustainability, 6(10): 6949-6972.

Chan, Carol. (2018a). In Sickness and in Wealth: Migration, Gendered Morality, and Central Java. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Chan, Carol. (2018b). “The politics of leisure and labor mobilities: Discourses of tourism and transnational migration in Central Java, Indonesia.” Mobilities, 13 (3): 325-336.

Constable, Nicole. (2014). Born out of place: Migrant mothers and the politics of international labor. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Silvey, Rachel. (2004) “Transnational domestication: State power and Indonesian migrant women in Saudi Arabia.” Political Geography, 23: 245-264.

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