The Naked Truth

"Ibu, saya telanjang!,”

a phrase I struggled to get out as I stumbled to cover my body and clumsily reached for my towel at the same time. “Mom, I’m naked!,” are 3 words I’d never thought I’d have to utter in the same sentence while in Indonesia. I also never thought I’d  feel anxious without the protection of daddy long leggers in my room, the option of a squatty potty, or the company of a body pillow at night. You just can’t predict these things. Or particularly explain them well.

It’s quite stereotypical for Indonesians, especially Indonesian Ibus, to be a little over the top with their hospitality. When speaking with a few NEW volunteers (ID 6) and their experiences, I enjoyed hearing the evasiveness of their Ibus, who allow for little to no privacy and treat their volunteers like their very own “infant children.” Someone told a story about her new host mother coming in and completely unpacking and ironing all of her clothes and putting them into her closet, disregarding the volunteer’s continuous protests to stop. It took me back to the time when my Ibu in Batu (during the training period before my move to permanent site in Madiun), who would wake me up every morning at 4:45 AM, and stand at the entrance of my door with a glass of hot sugary tea and the two questions:

“…have you bathed, have you eaten yet?”

Of course those questions (especially obvious) have continued, but the treatment as if I am a small child or incapable human being have hindered.

Quick rewind to last month, I recently moved in to my host sister’s side of the house (our Ibu and her house are one compound). Over the past several months, my sister has had an addition built to her sector of the house. I believe she just wanted a kitchen or a sink to do dishes and food prep. Before, she was during all the cleaning, clothes washing, bathing, and dish washing in the bathroom or mandi area. Thankfully, now she has a sink. But they went a little overboard and built a second floor with two new rooms along with a mandi. They asked me move in with them, just as my Ibu was trying to push me out of her side of the house. The timing couldn’t have worked out more perfectly. Currently, things are still being touched up. There are no lights yet, and only one door, which is the door on my room. Regardless, I have completely moved in. My Ibu is relieved because she doesn’t have to “take care of me” any longer and my host sister and I get to be roommates and cook together every morning. My Ibu is almost always over. Regardless of the pains she complains about in her legs, she often “checks up on me” upstairs in my room every evening.

Which brings us the the explanation part of the story. Thanks to the door less mandi, it creates more of an outdoorsy ambiance. After the first week, I stopped announcing when I planned on using the mandi. A corner must be turned before the mandi room is reached, and the noise from the water clearly indicts that it is being occupied. But perhaps that wasn’t enough. While I was taking a morning mandi, at the usual time, 5.50 AM, I saw a figure walking towards the empty door frame. Even with my reaction, my Ibu kept walking closer. I managed to wrap my towel around my waist and put a t-shirt on right before she reached me. I kept apologizing and she began explaining something about the draining and where my water goes. I don’t believe that was her real intention for coming up to talk to me, but perhaps no conversation could help escape the wall of awkwardness that stood between us.

I told her I needed to retreat to my room. I was fortunate enough not to hear my neighbors talking or telling me about what had happened later that afternoon. This was something that I feared, due to the amount of enjoyment my Ibu gets from storytelling, and how quickly information circulates in our village. I walked with my head low, embarrassed that neighbors had already known, but to my relief I did not hear any stories and it was not addressed again.

The situation actually lead into a rather meaningful conversation with a student later in the week. A student who often comes over my house, got to talking about appearances. The topic prompted me to asked, “How do you feel without your jilbab or headscarf?” When I approached her with this question, her eyes widened and she looked at me incredulously. Half of her reaction had to do with the fact that I don’t think she had ever seriously thought about the idea of not wearing a jilbab outside of her house. Silence took over for only a minute, but I could tell she was squirming in the stillness. I told her to imagine that I or a friend had come to her house unexpectedly…There was no planning and she was greeted by me or this friend jilbab-less, describe the initial feelings?


                                      Shy.                                  Comfortable                             Sad.

                                                  Happy              Cold.

                                                                     Worried.                           Safe

                                                                                  Myself                                       Lost.


She had closed her eyes tight searching through the files of English vocabulary for the right words, selecting with care, and then using a dictionary to guide her through the rest of her explanation. As she continued on, I learned that for her there is a feeling of not just comfort but protection when she wears her jilbab. She said, “I am covered and safe.” When she is at home she is without it, however, it doesn’t mean she is a different person. Anytime she wears the jilbab she can be herself because then she always has the sense of “being at home.”

I then realized I was not only confronting her reasons, but also searching for some truth. Where is the line drawn for the amount of covering done? Why are those who wear burqas, separated from those who wear jilbabs? I know there are many schools in the Islamic faith, opinions, and personal preferences, but my own curiosity never seems to subside. Why some but not all of my students wear it outside of school, or why my host sister only wears it around the house when her brother comes home to visit, or how the neneks (grandmothers) in my village can unquestionably wear a sarong as a tube top dress or just a bra and a skirt while sweeping their porch outside, as long as a jilbab securely hugs all sides of their face?

I finally broke in and shared the story about how my Ibu saw me without any clothes. It was reassuring for her that I could in some way relate with the feeling of complete discomfort I had placed her in through my questioning of being exposed, stripped, and left “naked.”

I was so proud of her for exploring and bravely articulating her feelings on what may seem like a sensitive subject. But I think it’s an important question to address.

It’s a daily routine.A lifestyle.An expression.

A reason and choice that should be embraced for what it is.

Whether it’s desired personally, or just done to blend in with society, for the sake of the family or as a promise to a religion, it is a symbol that speaks. I don’t believe this variation represents the degree of the person’s devotion., but it surely has more depth to it than just a thin veil…


confused why I needed to capture this moment: hanging up the curtain

As for my door less mandi…My host sister and I took a nail and uleg-uleg from the mortar and pestle, which is a tool used for grinding peppers and spices to make sambal (spicy sauce) as our hammer, and hung up a green curtain.

2 thoughts on “The Naked Truth

  1. We may as well not have a door on our bathroom. If I close the door, to Arthur that is more of an invitation to come in then if I leave it open.

    P.S. Is this message too personal for a public blog?

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