In Indonesia, a sexist term for ‘the other woman’

The use of the term pelakor in isolation reveals people’s tendency to blame only the woman in an affair, though it obviously takes two to tango. shutterstock.com

Many Indonesians have recently been bombarded with stories about the “pelakor” (Perebut laki orang), a term popularly used to refer to a woman who is perceived as responsible for ruining a couple’s marriage).

We are presented with these stories daily, whether on social media or on traditional news channels. Many internet citizens, or netizens, have expressed their hatred towards the pelakor. While neutral and/or thoughtful statements do exist, hateful attitudes are relatively easier to find, at least on Instagram, a graphic and text-based social media platform where news is frequently shared among netizens. This hateful rhetoric is largely aimed at the accused woman, as signalled by the repeated use of pelakor.

I would like to call attention to the problematic use of pelakor as a term in the discussion about infidelity. It is used to blame or shame a woman involved in an affair, with very little blame directed at the man. In this light, this term warrants a critical evaluation.

An unfair rhetoric

First and foremost, pelakor as a term is rhetorically unfair. This is because it positions the woman as a thief, an active agent, while positioning the man as an inactive agent (a stolen object, helpless and powerless).

Moreover, it is sociolinguistically partial towards the man. The term pelakor frequently appears without a corresponding term for the man in the relationship. In most of the posts that I have perused to get some data on the widespread use of the term pelakor, it is generally used alone, or the man is noticeably absent.

Rhetorically the term marginalises women. Moreover, the term also reveals a larger socio-cultural phenomenon. The popular use of the term pelakor in social media posts and in the news, with no comparable term for the man, shows that it is a sexist term.

The use of pelakor in isolation reveals our tendency to blame only the woman in an affair, though it obviously takes two to tango. We must not forget the fact that there are (at least) two parties involved in any instance of infidelity.

The inclination of many Indonesians to single out pelakor tells us something about our socio-cultural attitude to woman, which concurrently glorifies man. It appears to me that many Indonesians still reinforce a gender-biased discourse, particularly in the case of infidelity.

More often that not, we see how women are largely seen as the ones to the blame in many cases of infidelity. To my knowledge, if infidelity occurs, the blame will usually be put either on the betrayed wife (for example, by pointing out that she “fails” to take care of the husband) or on “the other woman”. Or, in many cases, both. In other words, our inclination to shout pelakor, without invoking the man, still exposes the violent treatment and partial perceptions of women.

Putting back the man in the narrative of infidelity

Used in isolation, the term pelakor erases the man’s role in this collaborative action. It not only undermines the man’s “awareness” (as if he can only be “trapped” by the woman because he can no longer use his brain to evaluate what is going on), but also his agency.

But the man having an affair is not a stolen object. He is equally responsible in the situation and should not be linguistically and rhetorically absent.

Thus, if some of us do still need to label others with this pelakor term, please use it together with “letise” (Lelaki Tidak Setia or the man who is not faithful), because both parties are involved in the affair. The accusation should not only be placed on one side.

Do use pelakor and letise together, if some still insist on giving labels. Or else, the term “the other woman (WIL, Wanita Idaman Lain)” should suffice and is much less judgemental. Pragmatically, WIL delivers the “participation” of the man in the narrative of infidelity.

On that note, I question the tendency to judge other people’s personal matters when we have very limited information about the cases and those involved. Perhaps the only reason this term pelakor exists is because some of us find an urgent need to judge others, and unfairly at that.

This article was originally published in Indonesian