How Java’s controversial female ruler grew into the job
In due course, Sultan Hamengkubuwono X died, and Pembayun became the ruler.
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Javanese royal titles are richly symbolic and elaborate.
Pembayun’s title included the term Mangkubumi, which translates from Indonesian as “the one who holds the Earth.” Her formal, 22-word regal title included a reference to her ancestor Senopati. She was crowned with the injunction “to bring safety, happiness and prosperity to the world.”
Her title as sultana included Arabic-origin honorifics referring to “strength,” “authority” and “rulership.”
The sultan had made small but critical changes in Pembayun’s formal title so that her designation was gender neutral. Nevertheless, problems of terminology arose. It was confusing enough in high Javanese and also created a challenge for English writers, since there is no obvious English term for a female sultan. Which hadn’t stopped the English-speaking wags of Indonesia from coming up with suggestions. Sultanette had some traction early on, then Mizsultan had a brief run. The one that finally stuck was Sultana. It is appropriate grammatically but unfortunate metaphorically, since the sultana’s being and appearance did not resemble in the least the dark, dried fruit of her honorific title.
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The sultana of Yogyakarta recognized that she had a responsibility to uphold the achievements of other memorable Indonesian female rulers.
Queen Shima was queen regnant of the seventh-century Kalingga kingdom on the northern coast of Central Java. She is remembered for introducing a law against thievery to encourage honesty among her subjects. According to legend, a foreign king placed a bag of gold on the main road to test the famed morality of the Kalingga people. Nobody dared to touch a bag that wasn’t theirs, until three years later when Shima’s son, the crown prince, accidentally nudged the bag with his foot. The queen issued a death sentence to her own son but was overruled by one of her ministers, who appealed to the queen to spare the prince’s life. Since it was the prince’s foot that touched the bag of gold, the minister argued, it was the foot that must be punished through mutilation.
The powerful Majapahit kingdom (c. 13th to 15th century) had three female rulers: Gayatri Rajapatni, Tribhuwana Wijayatunggadewi and Suhita.
In the 15th century, Sultana Seri Ratu Nihrasyiah Rawangsa Khadiyu became the sole ruler of the Samudera Pasai Sultanate of northern Sumatra.
And Sumatra’s Aceh Sultanate has seen four ruling sultanas, all in the 17th century.
Although they weren’t rulers, during the Dutch colonial period, Kartini of Jepara and Dewi Sartika of Bandung energized the 19th-century Indonesian women’s emancipation movement and are considered national heroes.
Megawati Sukarnoputri became Indonesia’s first female president, in 2001. She was the daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first, and most charismatic, president.
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The sultana moved from her middle-class house into the kraton itself.
She installed solar panels and a waste water treatment system.
She upgraded the quality of her servants, ensuring they were well-trained, educated and discrete, and had smart uniforms to wear.
She invited Brad Pitt to Yogyakarta to open a new waste management facility that transforms garbage into electricity. He accepted. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has agreed to fund a faculty of advanced computer technology at Yogyakarta’s Gajah Mada University. He will attend the opening.
She handles her royal duties to the best of her abilities.
I sought out an old friend, whom I’ll call Sita, who is a member of the sultana’s ko-go group. Ibu Sita is of a certain age and belongs to a class of well-bred, well-educated Javanese ladies who seem to have every aspect of life under control. Ibu Sita is elegant, refined, soft-spoken and perceptive.
Ibu Sita explained that to the initial surprise of her ko-go girlfriends, not to mention the populace of Yogyakarta, the sultana, in her civic role as governor of the Special Region of Yogyakarta, invited a string of local and global environmental NGOs to set up headquarters in the city. The sultana ordered the city council to write a series of tough laws covering littering, watershed destruction and riverine protection. Equally important, she has insisted that law enforcement officials actually enforce these laws. She chairs a commission that has created, according to a New Yorker article I wrote, “a new global standard for sustainable fisheries.” She has ordered the city’s Chinese restaurants to stop serving shark’s fin soup. She has initiated Southeast Asia’s strictest anti-pollution measures for cars and trucks. She has ordered the dismantling of numerous polluting factories (nine at last count) and constructed mini-rainforest public parks, an example of what she calls “Love Jungles.”
Her ko-go coffee gatherings continue, but with several changes.
Coffee is still offered, a fine Italian blend brewed on a new Gaggia espresso machine. But the ko-go ladies generally prefer to drink Pembayun’s “special blend” of green tea, with faint notes of honey, lavender and citrus. While the discussions still include celebrity scandals and the price of mangosteens, the women have formed themselves into a combination brain trust and vigilante committee. The sultana has given each woman a “portfolio” on which to focus, and the women excitedly meet foreign ambassadors and NGO experts to learn about the latest developments in, say, sewage treatment or public transport. She is patron of several NGOs that support women’s rights in the home and workplace. And the women in her ko-go group have gleefully turned into eco-spies, alerting the sultana about corruption and abuses of power in government offices that are supposed to protect the environment.
The second major change is the presence of a new member. She is around 50 and, like most of the other women, wears her hair in an elegant chignon. She is always immaculately dressed, generally wearing a green batik sarong and a white kebaya blouse. She joins in the ko-go discussions with a soft energy and has strong opinions about the breakup of Brangelina, the relative “bad boy” merits of Matthew McConaughey versus James Dean, the accuracy of the Joyoboyo prophecies and the future of electric cars. She and the sultana exchange knowing glances during the gatherings, and she often stays behind after the other women have left, to continue their discussions in the sultana’s private chambers.
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Breaking news from Indonesia:
One clear March morning, a Mr. B. Johnson, resident of the United Kingdom, stepped off his private jet at Yogyakarta’s Adisutjipto airport. He didn’t quite bounce (B. Johnson never bounced) but nevertheless had a verve in his step and a reservation at Southern Ocean Retreat in his pocket. He stood on the top step of the Falcon 2000’s retractable stairway and lit a Partagás Coronas Gordas Añejados. Life was good. He had just divorced his third wife, was in-line for a top UK government position and had made a killing (thanks to a touch of insider advice) with his shares in Exxon. He did not notice the tiny pool of water on the top step. His leather-soled right foot slipped, and Mr. B. Johnson, a stocky man who could have played rugby had he not been frightened by physical contact, tumbled down the stairway, landing squarely on his mop of blonde hair. The resulting concussion was fatal.
(To read more stories by Paul Spencer Sochaczewski, visit our Discovery archive.)
Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is a Geneva-based writer who has lived and worked in more than 80 countries, including long stints in Southeast Asia. He has written 13 books; the latest, Exceptional Encounters: Enhanced Reality Tales from Southeast Asia, was published by Explorer’s Eye Press in late 2017. Paul’s next book will focus on his experiences with mediums, psychics and spirits, which seers predict will be published in early 2019. He can be contacted at www.sochaczewski.com.