Like Mother, Unlike Daughter: Portraits of Women Defining Their Own Femininity
We talked to photographer Nadia Rompas about her series that unpacks mother-daughter relationships and gender stereotypes in Indonesia.
Sonia Eryka and her mom. All photos courtesy Nadia Rompas
This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.
Nadia Rompas's book of portraits Anak Perempuan is all about mothers and daughters. But, for the most part, you won't see any actual mothers in the book (aside from Sonia's mom, seen above). In her series, [a] mom is someone who hangs over their daughters' lives regardless of whether she's physically present. Sometimes that's a good thing, and on other occasions it's frustrating, like when your mom has very different ideas about how you should dress, who you should date, and where you should work.
Anak Perempuan is a book about all of that, and more. It's a series where Nadia tries to explore the realities, and demands, of mother-daughter relationships, by focusing on how these young women view themselves vs. how their mothers would rather have them look. It's about negotiating that identity as an independent woman and a daughter in a society that still places a lot of reverence on filial piety, family values, modesty, and the like. Nadia told VICE that she wants to explore a universal story about gender stereotyping, fashion, and parents.
"There is this idea that woman are one thing and men are a different thing," Nadia explained. "What is expected of women is so particular—and often times so limiting—and it's passed down from mother to daughter, and is reflected in how they dress and how they wear makeup. I want this book to represent a collective idea that brings attention to this subconscious, widespread conditioning."
VICE: Your series contrasts this binary that exists for women in Indonesia, that they're either "traditional" or "modern," a "good girl" or a "bad girl." Do you find a similar situation with most women you've met for this project?
Nadia Rompas: I never think of binaries when I approach someone for this project because their stories are very personal and they lie across a spectrum. For example, Alia fits the binary you mentioned; she came from a very traditionally Muslim family, so she feels that her fashion identity is very much opposite of that ideal.
But there are other examples. Sonia Eryka, for instance, who is also in the book, is a fashion blogger. I know her mom is quite religious, but she fully accepts what Sonia is doing with her personal style. She knows that it's her job as a fashion blogger to experiment with fashion, and that it's her child's identity.
"Living in Indonesia means there's an unwritten dress code. This code includes not drawing too much attention to yourself, covering yourself up enough so that you're not harassed on the street, and more."—Sonia Eryka
On the other side of the coin, there is Adista, who wears a hijab out of choice. But even so, she feels that her Mom expects her to dress a certain way, even with the hijab on. Her mom prefers simpler, more modest clothing, with minimalistic silhouettes that are more feminine—while Adista wants to wear other stuff, like Hawaiian print shirts with long sleeves, jeans, and Doc Martens, or something. It's really interesting to see that even when someone is already dressing according to the “traditional Indonesian standard,” her mother she is still expects her to dress a certain way.
Did you ever meet anyone whose mom wanted their daughter to dress more expressive or outrageous? Is it ever the other way around?
No, that one is a no [Laughs]. It’s always the mom either accepting their daughter’s freedom of expression or rejecting it. It would be interesting if you could find me a mom who thought otherwise.
So where did the inspiration for this project come from?
It's based on my own experiences and feelings. I have always reflected on my experience with my own mom, and the tensions when it comes to my fashion expression.
Growing up, I never thought of myself as a feminine person. And because I was a tomboy, I never wore skirts or makeup until I was in college. So my mom always tried to push me to be more girly, to wear skirt, and makeup. She wanted me to do ballet, for example, when I wanted to learn Taekwondo. I also noticed how different my parents treated me compared to how they treated my brothers, who had more freedom to do whatever they wanted to do.
"I think I'm my mother's nightmare. If she could do it all over again, I'm sure she would've done things very differently with me."—Alia Marsha
Since I started to pay attention to fashion, my mother has criticized me a lot, especially when I dress too "different," like if my makeup is too bold, if I wear eyebrow gel, and stuff like that. Or that she wants me to work at big multinational company now that I've graduated. She still wants to have control over my life. So it's all the small things that irk me and inspire me to explore other subjects’ stories. It's a way for me to make sense of my own experience.
What does your family think about this project?
[Laughs] Honestly, they don’t know a lot about this project. Initially, they thought I was just shooting pictures for fun—which is true—but they don’t know about the deeper message I'm trying to convey. They only knew about the book after it was published, and, even then, they didn't think twice about it.
Has living abroad shaped your views and values when it comes to fashion?
Yes, living abroad broadened my horizons and gave me a new perspective on life and on my identity as an adult. I did my undergraduate in Canada and my Master’s in Australia, and, there, I had the opportunity to express myself through fashion without anyone judging me.
When I first returned to Jakarta for good, I had a bit of culture shock because I was so accustomed to my freedom when I was studying abroad. Similarly, a lot of my subjects look very eccentric living among Indonesians, but when they were abroad in Western countries, they blended in very well. Nobody was raising an eyebrow over how they dressed. Nobody really cared.
"My mom started wearing a hijab daily and forced me to do the same, backing it with scriptures and all. When I couldn't refute her, I couldn't refuse. She makes me wear the hijab outside the house, but I always keep spare 'non-hijabi' clothes in the car and change when I'm not going out with my family. This has been going on for ten years and counting. I don't know if I could ever come out."—Zara
A lot of my subjects are Indonesians who have lived abroad because I can relate to their experiences and therefore I have more authority in telling their stories through my work. They are me. I am them. In this sense I want to tell my audience that “you're not alone, there are other women who share your struggle.”
I understand that this premise is rooted in privilege, it's a fact that many of my subjects are people who can afford to study abroad. But at the same time, this book has become a platform for them to lead the conversation around subconscious gender conditioning, after comparing their experiences in and out of the country. I hope other people who haven't had the chance to live abroad find their stories informative, educational, and useful.
What's your definition of success then when it comes to this project?
I told myself, alright these ladies already spent all this time talking to me, sharing their stories. I owed it to them to let their voices be heard in some capacity. And my partner has been very supportive of this project. He told me "no, no you've got to make it into physical copy." He split the cost with me and convinced me that what I was doing was important and that we needed to generate more discussions around gender stereotypes rooted in family tradition. He helped me design the book, I put up the website and everything, but the whole process was all pretty hectic. Thankfully it all came together pretty fast in the very end.
"I'm assuming that a lot of the anger concerning the way I dress comes from her trying to maintain her own image in front of friends and colleagues. I guess she's starting to realize as she gets older that, in this country, people talk. Maybe other people's expectations are what's shaping her expectations of me, and when I don't fulfill them she somehow takes it as a failure on her part."—Katy
My definition of success is not how many copies I sell or how much profit I get. If I want to quantify success, then, right now, we have nine copies left out of the 50 we printed. I feel like that's enough. But my focus is more about getting the message out there. I feel that if it's online, you just scroll through Instagram and that’s it. Physical copies have more gravitas. My definition of success is more philosophical. There is this big thing around gender and feminism in Indonesia, and I want to have a say in it. Just the fact that I birthed this into the world is a success. The journey itself is the reward.
Self publishing is hard, but at the same time, I have more agency over my creative process. Nobody butchers my ideas or tells me to do things a certain way. At the end of the day, these girls trust me to tell their stories, so I want to stay faithful to my sources. I have a responsibility not to skew the narrative.
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Also, full-disclosure, both Alia and Katy are currently, or have been, employed by VICE.