The wedding of Princess Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Hayu, fourth daughter of Yogyakarta’s monarch Hamengkubuwono X, has evidently captivated the imagination of many Indonesians as the royal event is widely broadcast in the media. And owing to the intense media interest, it is by far the most celebrated of Indonesian royal weddings to date. The figure of Princess Hayu herself has also raised questions about the changing role and status of women in Javanese royal courts.
The image of the princes being lifted by her husband and uncle during the Pondhongan ceremony was one of the highlights of the royal wedding. The ceremony, according to sources within the Yogyakarta Palace, was meant to emphasize the “elevated” status of women in the Javanese tradition. The fact that the US-educated Princess Hayu is a modern, independent woman is further testimony that the formerly rigid royal protocols concerning women have been chipped away by changes.
The first notable change within the Yogyakarta Sultanate was when the current reigning monarch decided against the practice of polygamy. Contenting himself with one consort, Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Hemas, Hamengkubuwono X differs from his father, who had five consorts. Most importantly, the sultan was accompanied by his queen during his enthronement and is still often seen with her at public functions, something unheard of in the previous generation of Javanese royal women who were rarely seen, let alone heard.
Contrary to the established customs, GKR Hemas is an accomplished woman who has taken on numerous public duties and is currently serving her second term as senator in the country’s upper house of parliament, the DPD, representing Yogyakarta. She was also vocal in voicing her opposition to the Anti-Pornography Act in 2008, which she deemed discriminatory against women.
The matter of gender equality becomes more pertinent when one considers that all the sultan’s children are daughters, traditionally barred from succession to the throne. The Yogyakarta Sultanate does not in fact possess a formal Act of Succession as the United Kingdom or any of the constitutional monarchies in Europe. Instead, the crown prince has always been either a prince the reigning sultan declared to be one or the eldest son of the prameswari or the acknowledged queen consort. If not, consensus among senior members of the royal family would have to be effected.
Hamengkubuwono X’s own succession in 1989 owed to a mixture of male primogeniture and consensus within the royal family as the late Hamengkubuwono IX never appointed any of his five consorts as prameswari. The current sultan was his eldest son, born out of his second wife.
Early in his reign, the current sultan confirmed in an interview that in his opinion a woman sultan of Yogyakarta was not something he would rule out. His own queen GKR Hemas once said a woman sultan would be a significant contribution of the Yogyakarta monarchy to the development of Indonesian society. Last year, during the discussion over central government influence on the special autonomy of Yogyakarta, she further said that who succeeds to the throne was the sultan’s sole prerogative.
However, enthroning a woman sultan may also face opposition from within the royal family itself. A stepbrother of the sultan, Prince Yudhaningrat, once explained that as ruler of an Islamic kingdom, the sultan of Yogyakarta is also titled “khalifatullah” or Allah’s own caliph. And in this role he sultan is the imam or religious leader of the people, a position only held by men in the teachings of Islam. Thus, in this vein, a woman sultan would be indefensible by religious doctrine.
As Hamengkubuwono X ages, the question of succession becomes a pressing issue. Taking into account the popularity of his daughters in general and his eldest daughter Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Pembayun in particular, it is feasible that many Yogyakartans would support a woman sultan. And yet, on the other hand, there are bound to be those who favor tradition above all else.
Possible friction over succession may tear apart the Yogyakarta monarchy as it has its sister kingdom, the Surakarta monarchy in Solo. The royal courts of Java, Yogyakarta in particular, may well be symbolic relics of the bygone age. Yet, they still occupy a special place in the hearts of Javanese people.
The current sultan has done much to improve the status of women within his own court by not practicing polygamy and by voicing his belief in gender equality. A woman successor to himself would perhaps be the crowning glory of his legacy for his people.
Johannes Nugroho is a writer and businessman from Surabaya. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.