Malu and Kemaluan (a SAMSARA workshop)

By Ellen O’Brien
Never in my life did I think I’d be standing topless in front of 20 Indonesian women, some wearing jilbabs, some not. But last weekend I did exactly that, as a model for one of Samsara’s education workshops?
The theme of this month’s workshop was sexual health, specifically breast and cervical examinations. This is a topic that most Australian women aren’t overly comfortable with – I’m not gonna lie, when I was first asked to be a model, I was a little squeamish. But a lot of Indonesian women are embarrassed by their bodies as well, as their genitals are often only seen in a sexual light. Many Indonesian women do not want to share this part of their bodies with anyone except their husband – not even a female doctor or gynecologist. Even if they do feel comfortable seeing a professional for a checkup, there issues of accessibility, either because of remoteness or money.


The title of this post is one of the many interesting points of Indonesian language. Malu means “embarrassed” or “ashamed”. The ke-an affix usually makes an abstract noun out of a base word. Following that pattern, kemaluanshould mean embarrassment. But it doesn’t. It means genitals. Genitals and embarrassment seem to be inextricably connected in Indonesian culture and indeed in Indonesian language. Crazy, isn’t it?

bsePictureMy role in the workshop was to, along with Witri, demonstrate how to perform a breast examination in two different ways: standing in front of a mirror, and lying down. Samsara’s director, the fiercely inspiring Inna Hudaya, went on to show us ladies how to examine our cervixes in the comfort of our own homes. This was my first time seeing a cervix – actually, before this, I don’t think I’d even seen a diagram of a cervix (thank you, Australian education system), and I was definitely not alone. Yes, this was definitely going to be an eye-opening (and leg-opening) experience.

So what was the reaction of 20+ grown women, in one tiny hot room, seeing other women’s bodies? Well, there were a few nervous giggles here and there, a couple of shy smirks. But, as always, intrigue overpowered embarrassment, and the curiosity got the better of us all. Seeing other women’s bodies – realising that everyone is completely different, but completely normal – was a liberating experience. When you realize that most women are not comfortable with their bodies – to the point that they cannot even perform basic procedures to ensure that they are healthy – you realize just how important body authority is. Why should we be embarrassed about our bodies? Why should we be afraid to ask questions about the shape of our breasts, or the health of our vaginas?

Samsara’s workshops allow women – Indonesian or not – to take the malu out of kemaluan. They can ask questions, check that they are healthy, take back authority over their bodies, regain power. And there’s nothing more powerful than baring your breasts to a roomful of people.

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