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“I ain’t bad”: the experiences of rural migrant sex workers in Surabaya city

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posted on 2023-07-21, 03:35 authored by Wooi Han Lee

Since the 1970s, Indonesian society has been immersed in the process of Pembangunan (development). State-led development programs introduced during the regime of the second president, Suharto, resulted in drastic modern reform at all levels of society. Despite its broad success in generally improving the living standards in the country, this top-down development approach created several problems for Indonesian society. In rural society, the state-led development programs slowly restructured the social matrix of everyday lives for rural communities, creating serious ambiguities, conflicts and tensions for social institutions, value systems and ultimately, the structure and culture of rural society.

This study undertook ethnographic fieldwork over a period of 11 months in the city of Surabaya to explore, in detail, the complex life stories of a group of rural Muslim migrant women from East Java who engaged in sex work in Surabaya city. The main objective of this study is to understand the disruptive life transformation behind rural-urban migration and examine the social and cultural reasons behind entering sex work for this group of women, who were left behind by modern development. From an epistemological point of view, this study helps enrich the analytical and theoretical understanding on the issues of development, religion, class and gender with special reference to sex work.

This study shows the ways in which political and socio-economic intervention by the Indonesian state in rural society created gendered impacts that transformed rural Javanese Islamic gender order and triggered a wave of rural-urban migration. This movement created a rapid shift from a rural way of life to an urban lifestyle that was more individualistic and consumeristic. Unable to adapt and catch up in this modern-but-alien society, the migrant women therefore experienced the feelings of being “out of place”. Further, due to the combined forces of structural constraints and personal life obstacles, many of these women began to associate themselves with sex work. For these women, the decision to enter sex work, despite creating difficulties for them, enabled them to exercise their creativity and agency to create their own narratives that contested the dominant narratives ascribing moral norms. They were able to achieve this by devising a set of strategies in the form of daily rituals and work practices that enabled them to redefine and reinterpret their stigmatized identity as a “sex worker”, continue to maintain their positive sense of being a “good Muslim woman” and bring meaning to their life amidst the sometimes-hectic dynamics of urban living. Unfortunately, a second intervention was undertaken by the Indonesian government, banning sex work with the closure of the last and biggest red-light districts of Dolly and Jarak in 2014, as a part of a mission to “clean up” Surabaya. This move further pushed the lives of this group of rural Muslim migrant women to an ultimate state of anomie and chaos.


Table of Contents

Introductory Chapter -- Chapter One. The Historical Trajectory of Indonesian State-Led Modernization -- Chapter Two. The Challenges to the Rural Javanese Islamic Gender Order -- Chapter Three. Sex Work and the Transgression of Islamic Moral Boundaries -- Chapter Four. The Identity Boundaries between “Good Muslim Woman” and “Deviant Sex Worker” -- Chapter Five. The Double Oppression: State vs. Religion -- Conclusion -- Bibliography -- Appendices -- Glossary

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD

Department, Centre or School

Macquarie School of Social Sciences

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Selvaraj Velayuthum

Additional Supervisor 1

María Amigó


Copyright: The Author Copyright disclaimer:




233 pages

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