Usma Nur Dian Rosyidah

M.A. English (Prev.)




            The interrelation among patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism construction are the main ideological, political, and economic structures which often result in women marginalization. In the marginalization, the three are imposed through representing subjectively the stereotypes of the differences of race, social class, gender, and religion.

            This writing is intended to scrutinize complex marginalization of a Dutch’s mistress or Nyai during the Dutch colonization toward
Indonesia. Having identity as a woman, as a Javanese/Sundanese, as a native, and as a mistress of a Dutch or Eurasian (European-Asian) master, a Nyai experiences complex marginalization both from her native society (the Javanese/Sundanese) and the foreign society (the European/Eurasian).

            The effort to free from the marginalization is restricted by the awareness of woman’s identity construction under patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism. The restriction to speak up against the complex marginalization leads the Nyai to keep silence and experiences the marginalization consequently and passively.


Keywords: Nyai, complex marginalization, difference, stereotype


1.      Introduction

Besides economic benefit as the main purpose of Western/European imperialism and colonization, there are also political and cultural motives behind it, namely representing and proclaiming the identity of Western/European as the leader and the best among other cultures all over the world. Having placed itself as the center, Western/European power and domination is practiced by marginalizing non-Western/European. Said argues this notion as he states:


At the margin of Western society, all the non-European regions, whose

inhabitants, societies, histories, and beings represented a non-European

essence, were made subservient to
Europe, which in turn demonstrably

continued to control what was not
Europe, and represented the non-European

in such a way as to sustain control. (106)


            In promoting its right to dominate and civilize the Eastern or non-European, the Western /European imposes the notion of difference in identity between the two. In this matter, race, gender, nationality, class, sexuality, and religion are multiple sources of identity used by the Western to sustain its control over the Eastern.

            In colonial discourse, difference is apparatus of power will which turn on the recognition and disavowal of racial/ cultural/ historical differences. It seeks authorization for its strategies by production of knowledge of colonizer and colonized which are stereotypical but antithetically evaluated (Bahabha: 70). Thus, the producing of ‘other’ –in which leads to the contrast of Western-Eastern, self-other, colonizer-colonized, master-servant, and such- is done by the process of ambivalence through imposing stereotype of the binary oppositions mentioned above.

            Stereotype as mode of ambivalence should shift from the ready recognition of images as positive or negative to its process of subjectification. In the process of subjectification, the colonizer imposes the bad or negative stereotypes the colonized has in order to justify their colonization over the colonized. Here, stereotype as the colonized is perceived as something that they deserve to have. On the other hand, the colonizer promotes that they have right of domination realizing their racial and cultural identities. The positions to dominate and to be dominated are imposed by the colonizer and then self-imposed by the colonized. Thus, the process of subjectification is possible to be practiced by engaging its affectivity: by proposing positions of power and resistance as well as domination and dependence that construct the identification of both the colonizer and the colonized.



2.      The Phenomena of Dutch’s Mistress

The Dutch colonization toward
Indonesia had influenced many aspects of both the colonizer’s and the colonized’s life. Besides economic and politics, one aspect influenced by the colonization is personal relationship between the Dutch and the Natives. In this case, the personal relationship between the Dutch and the Native could be seen in the phenomena of the Dutch men who had extramarital sexual relationship with the Native women. The relationship resulted in the birth of many children who were mix-blooded of Dutch-Indies parents.

During its colonization, according to Jong (11), the Dutch divided its colonial society into three groups: Europeans (with the Dutch as the majority) who constituted as the upper class, Foreign-Orientals (Arabs, Malaysians, Chinese, British-Indies, and the like) who were in the middle class, and Natives (Indonesians) as the lowest one. More or less, the policy resulted in the increasing number of mistress or Nyai, who were native women who became sexual partners of the Dutch and or the middle class group men.

As has been described by Jong (11), until 1870 there were never more than a few thousand Europeans, chiefly men, in the Dutch East-Indies (
Indonesia). Many of them, primarily the soldiers, took native wives or sexual partners and had children of mixed descent. In 1892, the offspring of European fathers and Indonesian mothers were granted European nationality on condition that they were recognized by the fathers. The terms and conditions to be recognized as a Dutch or as a European included converting to Christian both for the mothers as well as the children and or having European upbringing for the children.

Since then, hierarchy was kept strictly among the groups. The Dutch’s intention to sustain its colonization was carried up by presenting the differences of identity among its colonial society. As the Dutch constituted as White (European), its supremacy then caused negative stereotype of Color/Black (non-European). Representing identities of non-European as poor, uncivilized, dirty, and such led the object to be discriminated and marginalized. Thus, through its mode of representation, both the Dutch and its lower classes kept stereotype they had strongly to position themselves in their appropriate place.

Related with Nyai or the Dutch’s mistress phenomena, such kind of European’s view to dominate the non-European and its attempts to have control of identity of its colonized led to the marginalization of the Nyai or mistress. Having status as a Nyai or a mistress meant that she had more than one identity: a woman, a low class, a native, and a colonized. Thus, she experienced gender, class, and racial marginalization. Her complex marginalization became worst since it was practiced both by the Dutch and the Native.


3.      Societies Which Marginalized Nyai or Mistress

Having status as a Nyai placed a mistress in a stereotyped position. Both societies she had contacts with consider the status negative because of the identity resulted from it. As a mistress, she was a native woman whose place was under European/Eurasian; she was also a Javanese/Sundanese woman whose position was under the Javanese/Sundanese man. The Dutch and the Eurasian preferred to marginalize her because of her race. On the other side, living in Javanese/Sundanese society, she found that her position in the society was subordinate to a man.

First of all, from the Dutch, a mistress’ marginalization had its root from the division of the Dutch’s colonial society into three classes and the recognition of mix-blooded children and the mothers to be European. In practice, in fact, it was not as easy as what had been regulated under the Dutch government policy. Realizing the different origin and identity, the pure Dutch or European avoided the Eurasian to constitute him/herself belonging to European. The pure European kept the identity strongly and put the identity of non-European different from his or hers.

The difference as not pure European and the avoidance of the pure European to accept the Eurasian in practice had caused the Eurasian identity became alienated. For Eurasian, it was a difficult position and condition for not being accepted as European. On the other hand, in fact, the position was not such threatening as there was still racial or ethnic group which position was lower than Eurasian: the Native. This difference in identity enabled them to constitute their position higher than the Native.

In the novel, the Nyai or mistress character is marginalized by both the patriarch and the matriarch, who are Eurasian. The patriarch, Alex, is the master as well as the sexual partner of the mistress character, Titi. Although Alex finds himself outcaste as half European, being marginalized by his European society, and keeps native way of life, it does not mean that he cannot release all of Eurasian identity and thus change it into native. Still, he represents his identity higher than native and practices marginalization, too.

From the matter of different cultural identity and stereotypes, the marginalization practiced by Alex is not merely because Alex prefers keeping his superiority as having a half European bloodline and culture. It is a matter of representation and imposing identity with all the stereotypes and its internalization hold by Alex and his native surroundings. The internalization and self-impose of the native can be seen in the way they address Alex as ‘Tuan Kandjeng’, which indirectly places Alex as a master because he is considered as a European by the native. While for Alex, his marginalization practice can be seen that he has native people as his servants and a native woman, Titi, as his Nyai. To Titi, he considers her as his sexual partner only. Thus, Titi’s position in the relationship is just a servant.

The matriarch, Sophie, in fact she is Alex’ sister who positions herself as the dominant in the family. While Alex can conform the native culture and practice it, Sophie avoid not practicing any native culture but she finds herself practice it. In fact, she is very familiar with and does things related to dukun, slendang, selametan, Tuan Allah, hadji, kampong, and so on. So, denying her hybrid identity, in which she holds European culture but at the same time also practices the native culture, she cannot release herself from not imposing the negative stereotypes the native has. She practices the marginalization to Titi, Alex-Titi’s children, and even Alex.

Realizing Titi’s status as a Nyai and Titi’s origin, she places Titi much more inferior than she is. To Titi’s children who are under her upbringing, it is very often that the matter of their native manner and physical appearances leads her into stereotyping them as lazy and indolent. Since she considers that the children learn laziness and indolence in the kampong –which means when they were under Titi’s upbringing in the previous-, indirectly, it is also the stereotype of the children’s mother, Titi. So, as Eurasian, Sophie marginalizes Titi because of Titi’s identities both as a native and as a mother.

Secondly, Titi receives marginalization from her Javanese/Sundanese society. Besides its position as the lowest group in the social hierarchy created by the Dutch, internally, the Javanese/Sundanese also has their own stratification and hierarchy within its society. In general, The Javanese/Sundanese society is divided into two: the rich who constitutes as the upper and the poor as the lower.

In gender relationship within its members, there is also a division between men and women. The position of men is higher than women. Very often, the men are considered as having more power and high social status than woman. The patriarchal ideology is kept strongly. The society places men as the leaders of the women. So, in the Javanese/Sundanese social hierarchy, the order is the rich or priyayi and the men placed as the first class and the poor or wong cilik and the women constitute the second class.

Besides social stratification and hierarchy, the Javanese/Sundanese also practices feudal system in its economic life which based on plantation. In fact, it was also practiced by the Dutch. Under this system, the lands are owned by the rich. The poor only cultivate or lease the land from the rich with a high tax. Because of it, the landlords would remain rich and the landless would suffer in poverty.

Related to the mistress character in the novel, although there is no explanation about Titi’s family background, it can be analyzed that it seems that she comes from a poor family. In order to fulfill the family needs, she has to follow what the patriarch –her father- order to her to receive status as a mistress although the status was perceived negatively by the Javanese /Sundanese society as its extramarital sexual relationship occurred considered as breaking the Javanese/Sundanese values, norms, morality, and religion.


4.      Complex Marginalization Experienced by A Mistress

At least, there are four marginalization experienced by the mistress character in the novel: racial, gender, social class, and religion. That’s why the marginalization is considered complex.

In colonization, racial difference is maintained as a symbol of social status between the colonizer and the colonized. It is applied through the arrangement of Black, Brown/Color, and White as lower, middle and upper class. Race also implies culture which is asserted in term of superior-inferior. The colonizer often stereotype race with certain pattern of behavior to justify the colonial social hierarchy.

Having racial identity as “Black” in the Dutch colonial society, The Dutch stereotype the Nyai identity as primitive, uncivilized, lazy, dirty, and such. Because of that, the Dutch has a justification to modernize and civilize her. In the novel, it can be seen from Sophie’s intention and the way she raises Titi’s children under European upbringing in order to get legal status as European. The notions in the novel obviously show how the native’s physical appearances, attitude, and manner are considered ‘black’, inferior, uncivilized so that it is needed to make ‘white’, superior, and civilized. However, as the children get black skin from the mother, it is also marginalization of Titi racially.

Second, Titi’s identity as a Javanese/Sundanese woman causes her to be marginalized by Alex, Sophie, and her native society. Her gender, as a woman, is represented as the second sex under patriarchal system practiced by the colonizer and the colonized. Under Javanese/Sundanese culture, patriarchal system hinders the chance for a woman to express herself in an active way. Patriarchal system constructs and represent woman as docile and passive.

For the colonizer, patriarchal system is not alone in constructing women as the second sex. It is interrelated with capitalism and imperialism. The three are useful to gain power over the colonized female sexuality. It is practiced by constructing woman’s sexuality into three ways: first, by giving the native woman image of exotic oriental woman as sensuous, seductive, full of Eastern promises; second, on the contrary, by characterizing the native woman as ugly, smelly, dirty, and such; third, by portraying the native woman as licentious and immoral.

In the novel, the first construction finds its notion in master-servant relationship between Alex and Titi. As Alex’ mistress, she has to serve Alex in the day as home maid while in the night she has to be Alex’ sexual partner to fulfill Alex’ sexual desire. Besides that, as Alex finds himself inferior to the European women, he prefers to have Titi as his partner because he realizes Titi’s natural characters as a Javanese/Sundanese woman who will give him a total service and will never protest her subordinate position. Most of all, it has something to do with Titi’s domestic role as a woman. On the other hand, the second construction can be proven from Sophie’s hatred of real native upbringing of Titi’s children. Since previously they were under Titi’s, Sophie always considers Titi’s children as ugly and smelly. While still under Titi’s upbringing, Sophie’s consideration that Titi never teaches them not to stay naked in front of others and to feel ashamed if they do such ‘immoral’ habit thus can be seen that indirectly, the colonizer associates it to the native’s licentious. In addition, the Javanese/Sundanese considers that being a mistress as licentious and an immoral status of a woman.

Third, a mistress is marginalized because of her social class. As her position in the society is as the lowest, Titi must provide herself to give full service, positions herself as the subordinate and servant, and never opposes against the position.

At last, a mistress is marginalized because of her religion. In this matter, both societies cannot accept her. Her native society doubts her faith. As most of Javanese/Sundanese is Muslim, her betrayal to be the Dutch’s mistress who is Christian and thaat the relationship is extramarital, she is considered doing adultery and thus she is a sinner. On the other hand, the colonizer cannot accept her, too. For the colonizer, a mistress is let in such illegal sexual relationship because she does not change her faith into Christian.


5.      Conclusion

Fenomena panggilan Nyai (Mistress) sebagai akibat kebijakan pemerintah Belanda telah meninggalkan pengalaman ambivalen pada wanita Indonesia yang memiliki status tersebut.  Bentuk ambivalensi dapat dilihat bahwa pada satu sisi, status sebagai mistress membuat mereka mempunyai akses  ke kehidupan dan kebdayaan eropa, dan bebas dari kemiskinan. Disisi lain status tersebut membat mereka termarjinalkan. Untuk mereka, menjadi mistress adalah semacam pengalaman yang memberikan kenikmatan sekaligus  penderitaan.


The widespread of Nyai phenomena as the impact of the Dutch government policy had caused the ambivalence of (post) colonial experience of the native woman who had the status. The ambivalence can be seen that in one side, status as mistresses made they had possibilities to access the European life and culture and free them from poverty. On the other side, the status led them into being marginalized. For them, being a mistress is a kind of fetish experience, which both give them pleasure as well as pain.

Most of the mistresses remain silence then became the realistic attitude since the status places them nowhere. Patriarchy, imperialism, and capitalism will not listen to what women speak up. The native society patriarchal and feudalism systems forbid them to do any protest. As the lowest social class of social hierarchy and as the ‘victims’ of the systems, they could not fight against the systems. Their voice also will not be listened by the colonizer because of their ‘otherness’.





  • Nyai                 : native/colonized women who have pre-marital or extra-marital sexual relationship with the colonizer men; native/colonized women who became home maid as well as bed mate of colonizer men.
  • Complex marginalization           : condition of racial, gender, social class, religion and such marginalization of native women in their position both as colonized women and as women which is done by both the colonizer and their native society as well.
  • Difference         : a notion of the ‘outsider’ or ‘the other’ which is produced through binary opposition in the construction of identity.
  • Stereotype        : a false interpretation of a given reality; oversimplified, rigid, and generalized belief about group or people in which all individuals from the group are labeled with the perceived characteristics of the group.




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One Response

  1. This one is a neat article, I’ve been looking for articles regarding dutch indonesians.

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