“Balinese Women now are more open minded”

A conversation with entrepreneur Yanthi Putu Sayanthi.

We meet in a local coffee place where we sit at a safe distance near an open window, according to the pandemic rules. Yanthi Putu Sayanthi doesn’t let her family go out much, she tells me. They’re careful about the COVID-19 situation and take the new imposed government restrictions very seriously. She still looks relaxed though and we share our amazement about the global situation we’re currently in. She shrugs and says with a big smile on her face: “I don’t know what is going on?!”

Yanthi Putu Sayanthi (✍️ by Kazuaki Senno)

Respect for older generations

Her response will be typical in the rest of the conversation because she confronts the challenges in her life with a positive attitude. Yanthi: “The pandemic constantly shows me to stay positive because through optimism miracles can happen. Sometimes I drive to Sidemen (a popular rice field area on the east end of the island, SB.) to scream and let the tension out of my body. It’s a good way to distress and not think about how to get money and how to survive this crisis.”
So far, her family has been healthy throughout the pandemic and they never talk about COVID-19 at home. A lot of people visit their house because her parents are one of the oldest citizens in the village of about thousand inhabitants, divided over five so-called banjars, the Balinese local community groups. Older generations are treated with a lot of respect in Balinese culture because their experience and wisdom is still needed in daily life. Yanthi: “My father knows everybody and everything in our banjar. When people are getting married they come to my parents for blessings and advice. And for every single ceremony in town my parents get invited”. She says ‘parents’ but in the Balinese patriarchal society it’s mostly her father who fills an important position. He knows about every single piece of land and if there is a problem about ownership, they will come to him for advice instead of relying on a system of land registry that’s been set-up very recently.
Her father played a role in her own divorce as well. It took Yanthi a couple of months to convince him of her choice to leave her ex-husband. “I told my father enough is enough. He didn’t agree at first, but I assured him how I always fixed all the problems I had in my marriage. It took him another six months to realize that it was a good thing to get a divorce. He saw it”, she tells me.  

Divorce is a matter of body and mind 

Yanthi has three children with her ex, one boy and two girls. She divorced two years ago and left the house of her former spouse and his family six months after. The divorce came as a surprise to her own family and friends, she never shared marriage problems with anyone before. The children stayed in the house where she lived with her ex, that’s tradition in Bali. In general in Balinese culture, when a woman marries she leaves her own family and moves in with her in-laws. After separation, she returns to her family home without the children. “We can’t complain about it because it’s our tradition. We all have our own past. In my soul I can’t take my children with me and the children’s bodies and souls grew up in that house, I can’t just take them away”, Yanthi explains, referring to the belief in past lives and the religious view on the connection between body and soul. “Once you move to your husband’s house after marriage, you bring all your body and soul to that house. So when we divorce we need to do a ceremony to bring part of our own souls back to our parents house”, the mother of three clarifies.
It wasn’t easy for her to go back to her parents, ‘with empty hands’, as she calls it: “It depresses me so much sometimes. I want to make my parents happy, but I come back with nothing. Fortunately, my parents have been very supportive and accepted my decision.” Yanthi’s brother lives at home in the family compound as is customary in Balinese households and her six sisters are all married and moved out. It makes clear why some couples keep getting more children if there are only girls being born. 
Yanthi still has a good relationship with her ex and his family because he is the father of her children: “The moment I signed the divorce papers was the moment that I decided my ex is going to be my best friend. I didn’t want my children to have to deal with tension between us.” Now when she visits his home, he talks friendly to her but he doesn’t look her in the eyes.

Balinese women started small businesses during the pandemic

Yanthi, or Putu as her family calls her, takes a sip of her pineapple juice with mint and shares about her life before COVID-19: “I was working as a nanny for foreigner families but many people returned back to their home country. Most of my clients were from Australia, but I’ve worked for families from The Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Germany and the UK as well. I loved my job because I love to be around kids, it brings me back to my own childhood. I fly around like crazy with kids, they’re the purist human beings. Since I’ve lost my job I’m applying to do anything. The people in my village know how much I love to cook so whenever there is a ceremony, they’ll order food from me.”
Before we continue our chat she puts the red velvet cake on the table, saying: “This is for you”. Many Balinese women have started small businesses selling food, with social media platforms as their marketing tool. Yanthi already had a side business in the sale of necklaces on Facebook. And now she also bakes cakes for individual orders. Without a fulltime job she puts all her energy into these different projects so she can pay the school for her kids. When her ex-husband can’t support her with money she has to pay school fees by herself. The other way around doesn’t occur. 

Some Balinese women are stuck in the culture

The first time we met was a few months ago when we both joined the sisterhood retreat of Luh Manis. It was the first time for Yanthi to spend a night outside of her home and connect to new people. “She opened my life”, she says while pointing at Luh who just walked in to join our meeting and responds wittily: “People say I’m Nokia, always connecting people”.
With a network of new friends Yanthi realises how big the world is and how easy it is to support each other and exchange experiences. Even though as a nanny she’s been working with people from different countries before, it wasn’t on equal footing and she wasn’t allowed to speak much about herself.
She’s become more grateful and also teaches her family some of the lessons she learns while hanging out with other women. “If we love ourselves, we can do more things. If we know how to survive we can do anything. Sometimes I have ten thousand rupiah (70 US dollar cents, SB.) in my pocket but I still feel rich. I feel like I have everything”, she says with a smile on her face. Her goal is to get more Balinese women involved in the community, not everyone can contribute at the moment due to the financial situations.
Money isn’t the only hurdle, Yanthi continues: “Some women are stuck in the culture. Women now are more open minded but some people don’t accept the open mindedness. When I explain with logic that if you stay in the same circle, nothing will change, they accept it. They need to get out of their comfort zone.”
Yanthi knows that in Balinese culture it doesn’t work to push women towards change: “We follow the rules and change small things in a sneaky way. For example, changing certain habits step by step. My family sometimes think I’m crazy because I’m not married and I don’t have a proper job and still I’m happy. We can do everything when we’re feeling happy from the inside. I try to explain to them every day that life is beautiful for us as long as we’re grateful for what the universe gives us. I wrote positive sentences on the walls in my house and I now see some of my family members doing the same.
If you don’t experience it by yourself, it’s hard to see things differently. I’m always curious about everything. If I think something is good for me, I’m like ‘why not?’, like jumping into something new”.
What does the future hold for her? She answers laughing: “Ooh…. I can’t imagine anything now! But I believe that I can do whatever I focus on. I believe in miracles.” 

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