Nyai: The Spirit that Haunts Indonesian Women

Hariati Sinaga
7 min readMay 18, 2018


For the majority of Indonesians, “bantal guling” or bolster pillow is not uncommon. In fact, the pillow is a part of necessary bed items for Indonesians. I bet that bantal guling exists in every Indonesian bedroom. However, many Indonesians are probably not aware of the history of bantal guling. The history of bantal guling is closely related to the colonial perspectives of Nyai. While Dutch colonization had come to an end long time ago, such perspectives remain influencing the stereotypes of Indonesian women as well as how Indonesian women view themselves. Nyai, as a cultural trope, becomes the site of discourse struggles, who embodies the colonized bodies and colonized mind. It is this task of the article to interrogate and reclaim Nyai as one of ways to decolonize our knowledge.

Bantal guling or bolster has another English name, that is, a Dutch wife. This name has a historical meaning. Bantal guling is a typical sleep company for the Indonesians. And so is a Dutch wife. During early Dutch colonization in East Indies (the name for Indonesia at the time), the Dutch colonizers settling in the Indies were only males following restricted immigration policies. This led to the use of native women as their sex slaves. When slavery was outlawed in 1860, the relationship changed, in which the native women became concubines to the Dutch men. The involvement of native women as concubines might not be as straightforward as it seems. It could be disguised under the colonial euphemism of “huishoudster” (a Dutch word for housekeeper). Beneath the partnership, it remains practically the same, namely, native women as sex slaves. During the later period of Dutch colonialism, some of the Dutch-indigenous couples legally married as concubinage was prohibited. This relationship between Dutch men and native women in turn predominantly bred into Eurasian descendants. Eurasian women

The native women involved in this type of relationship were mainly women in Java. One of the reasons is the predominant presences of Dutch colonizers in Java. Nyai, a word commonly used in West Java as a reference to a woman, or an elderly woman. Originally the word was used to show a respect. However, during the Dutch colony, the word had a derogatory meaning. In my opinion, it is not only necessary to unpack the stories of Nyai. It is also important to understand Nyai as a cultural trope, through which Indonesian women seek a reconciliation. This is not meant to reinforce the idea of certain ethnic (i.e. Java or Sunda) is superior to other ethnics in Indonesia, or the so-called “Jawa-sentrisme”. Rather, it was the colonial context, in which Indonesian women were largely directly exposed to the Dutch colonizers. This could be a start to reveal a similar trope that occurred outside Java, for example on plantations.

For now, however, let me focus on Nyai and the colonial portrayals of her. We could get some rough ideas about the profile of Nyai through fictional stories involving characters of Nyai written during the Dutch colonialism. The most well-known of these stories is the story of Nyai Dasima. The story of Nyai Dasima, written by G. Francis in 1896, portrays an indigenous woman as a beautiful mistress to an Englishman. The rich mistress was then seduced by a driver of “delman” (a two-wheeled horse-drawn carriage) and ended up getting killed. It is argued that the story was based on true story. Then, there is the story of Nyai Ratna, written by Tirto Adi Suryo. After having been left by her husband for another woman, Nyai Ratna becomes a mistress of a sailor as well as several other men, until she marries a rich Dutch, Van Braak. She then has an affair with another man, and decided to kill Van Braak to inherit his wealth. Another Nyai story written by Tirto Adi Suryo is quite similar. The story of Enceh, sold by her pribumi (indigenous) husband to a Indo-Dutch loan shark as debt settlement. Enceh then also has affairs with several other men.

A quite different story of Nyai was written by H. Kommer. The story of Nyi Paina follows an indigenous woman sold by her father to his boss in sugar factory. The story of Nyi Paina is different from the other Nyai stories in two aspects. First, Nyi Paina was portrayed as an educated middle class indigenous woman. Second, she was not portrayed as having an affair with a pribumi, or with any other man for that matter. Rather, she is able to leave her situation as a mistress by contracting smallpox to her Dutch partner, who then dies due to the illness. As an attempt to redeem these colonial portrayals of nyai, Pramoedya Ananata Toer wrote the story of Nyai Ontosoroh. Nyai Ontosoroh is sold as a nyai to a Dutch tuan (master). As a concubine from a lower economic class, however, Nyai Ontosoroh shows her ability to rise by pursuing education, such that then allows her to manage her master’s agriculture estate. When her master later dies, Nyai Ontosoroh prefers to stay single. She is also not portrayed as having an affair.

A Dutch man with his Nyai and their child. Source: KITLV

The first part of the nyai stories mentioned above highlight the common (colonial) perceptions on Nyai, namely: lower economic class, uneducated, uncultured, lustful, impure, and sinful. These characters are particularly pronounced within stories written by Dutch women between 1870 and 1910 following the arrival of Dutch women to the Indies (GoGwilt 2011: 157). The story of Nyi Paina takes a different approach, by showcasing the agency of nyai, and was actually unpopular during the time. Ultimately, it is Pramoedya Ananta Toer who turns over the portrayal of Nyai, as it is his objective to depict a figure of nyai as a woman with anti-colonialism spirit.

Apart from the characters mentioned above, some of Nyai stories also demonstrate a native woman with a spiritual, if not evil, power. This brings us to the myth of Nyai Roro Kidul. In Javanese and Sundanese mythologies, Nyai Roro Kidul serves as the goddess of the Southern Sea (Indian Ocean). People in Java widely believe in the existence of spirit of Nyai Roro Kidul. According to the myth, her spiritual power allows her to take any soul she wishes for.

Illustration of Nyai Roro Kidul. Source: NyaiRoroKidul.com

It is not difficult to grasp the Orientalist views in the colonial portrayals of nyai. The native women, who were sex slaves or entered the concubinage with Dutch settlers, were depicted as uncivilized, uneducated, poor, prostitutes, just to name a few. It is likely because of these Orientalist depictions that the native women were justified to be sex slaves or concubines. It is also these Orientalist depictions that contribute to the change in the meaning of Nyai, from a word for honorific use to a word with a derogatory meaning. When Indonesians speak of “Nyai Belanda”, it would likely refer to Dutch mistresses, or “gundik Belanda”. Gundik is a very pejorative term for a mistress.

Dutch colonialism was over long time ago. We also do not see the phenomenon of “Nyai Belanda” anymore. But whatever portrayals painted onto nyai still haunt Indonesian women even until nowadays. Let me start with the portrayal of Indonesian women as an exotic woman. Just as much as this Orientalist view serves as one of justifications of Dutch colonialism as well as the use nyai as sex slaves or concubines in the past, it serves as a contemporary justification of an “authority” over Indonesian women. It reminds us of famous lyrics from a song, Sabda Alam, which says, “wanita dijajah pria sejak dulu…”. The text literary means that woman has been colonized by man for a while. This claim of authority could come both from Indonesian or non-Indonesian men, suffering from postcolonial hangover.

Portraying Indonesian women as exotic is a step closer towards fetishizing Indonesian women. In the context of Asian women in general, this is what we call as a “yellow fever”. This fetishization of Indonesian women put the women as hyper-sexualized persons. This narrative explains trafficking of Indonesian women as well as the lack of protection of Indonesian sex workers.

The fetishization is not only about sexual obsessions. It also entails a description of Indonesian women as docile and submissive individuals. These stereotypes have been used in the context of the employment of women in Indonesia’s factories. The stereotypes are important for factories to enforce labor control over women on the shop floors. Studies in feminist economics further shows how women workers in the Third World countries, where export-oriented factories are located, are “constructed” around these narratives.

The narrative of submissiveness and docility is also used to portray Indonesian maids or domestic workers, either those who work locally or those who work abroad. Their submissiveness and docility are preferable. Although in theory, such stereotypes perceived as loyalty should reward the workers with stable employment, in practice these stereotypes have been used to tolerate these workers’ poor working conditions.

All these imply that, despite Indonesian women gaining (Western) civilization, and to some extent (Western) education, there remains colonial portrayals of nyai cast upon Indonesian women. It is like a spirit that haunts Indonesian women, and the only way to overcome it is by confronting the spirit. Nyai, here I argue, is a cultural trope in which certain discourses, norms, values, stereotypes around Indonesian women have to be dismantled.

Last but not least, not only the ways Indonesian women are perceived need to be confronted, but “what the world is” for Indonesian women has to be rethought. The former concerns with colonized bodies, the latter deals with colonized mind. Western imperialism brought the legacy of Western philosophy as a center of knowledge and knowledge production. Western philosophy is constructed upon modernist divide between nature-culture, rational-spiritual onto-epistemologies. This is in contrast to non-Western philosophy, which is based upon relational onto- epistemologies. This implies that the spiritual realms have to be reconsidered in rethinking Indonesian ontologies. This brings us back to the figure of Nyai Roro Kidul as the goddess who has a spiritual power. Reclaiming this spiritual sphere does not mean for Indonesian women to have spiritual superpower. Rather, when we attempt to understand as well as increase the agency of Indonesian women, not only it is important to disrupt the colonial portrayals of Indonesian women, but it is also imperative to embrace spiritual activism.