Yogi and Tina are a young married couple who live in Malang. Photo by Ariane Utomo.


It has been almost a century since the novel Sitti Nurbaya was published. In the book, Sitti Nurbaya ends up agreeing to marry a much older and abusive businessman, Datuk Maringgih, so that he will forgive her father’s debt.


In the minds of many of my contemporaries, Sitti Nurbaya represents a bygone era. We have supposedly moved beyond the time when our parents exerted a large control over our decisions to marry; when women could not travel to faraway lands to pursue higher education; when women would end up marrying much older, more educated, and more financially established men. Nor do we live in a time when status and ethnicity matter so much, as marriage no longer serves as a primary tool for establishing or maintaining kinship or family alliances (except in elite circles, where strategic marriages still occur to some extent).


Data from the Indonesian National Socio-Economic Surveys, the 2010 Population Census, and the 2015 Intercensal Population Survey highlight several key features of changing marriage patterns in Indonesia.


First, on average, women still tend to marry men who are older. However, while women marry up in age, there is evidence to suggest that the age gap between husband and wife is getting smaller. The average age gap between husbands and wives in 1982 stood at around 6.4 years. By 2010, on average, wives were 4.7 years younger than their husbands. In 2015, the age gap stood at around 4.5 years. Among married women in 2015, the age gap was even smaller, and there were higher education levels among wives. This pattern is indicative of more egalitarian prospects in marriage and a result of increasing educational attainment among women.


The second and related trend is also to do with education. The majority of married couples in Indonesia have comparable education attainment between them (homogamy). Between 1982 – 2015, roughly 1 in 2 husbands and wives had the same level of highest educational attainment. There are more couples where the husband has a higher education level than their wives (hypergamy), than the reverse (hypogamy), but considerable shifts in these patterns have emerged. The proportion of women marrying up in education declined between 1982 (39 per cent) and 2015 (27 per cent). Conversely, the proportion of women marrying down in education had risen over the same period (10 per cent to 22 per cent). These trends in the relative age and education of married couples support the notion that marriage today is very different to marriage in the age of Sitti Nurbaya.

The third feature is that of ethnic assortative mating. Data from the 2010 Population Census indicates that  9 in 10 married couples are of the same ethnic category, but there are variations in the patterns of interethnic marriage by population groups and by regions.


Provinces with a higher proportion of migrants, such as Jakarta, West Papua, and Riau Islands, have higher rates of ethnic intermarriage than other regions. Provinces where indigenous ethnic groups are divided into many sub-categories also exhibit higher rates of intermarriage. A case in point would be the many sub-groups of Dayaks in West Kalimantan, in contrast to the single category of “Javanese” in Central Java. The highest rates of ethnic intermarriage rate were recorded in Jakarta (33 per cent) and the lowest was found in Central Java (less than 2 per cent).


For an individual, the likelihood of ethnic intermarriage is affected by his or her ethnic group size and the dominant religion of his or her ethnic group. Individuals from large ethnic groups are less likely to marry someone of a different ethnicity. For example, the Javanese have the highest rates of endogamy (marrying within their ethnic group). But simply because of their sheer numbers, they are also over-represented among ethnic exogamous couples (marrying outside of their ethnic group).


The last feature is that of religious assortative mating. It is difficult to assess religious intermarriage in Indonesia because of the common practice of premarital conversion. The 2010 Census recorded less than 230,000 married couples who had different religions and lived in the same household. This corresponds to a very small percentage (0.5 per cent) of all married couples.


Further analysis indicates that younger cohorts are less likely to be recorded as being married to someone with a different faith. This is in contrast to the trends for ethnic intermarriage – where the likelihood of marring someone of a different ethnicity is higher among younger groups. This finding supports the idea that the introduction and strengthening of barriers against interfaith marriage is making it more difficult for individuals to cross religious boundaries. However, given the limited access to data around interfaith marriage, further analysis is needed to know whether this is a valid conclusion to make.

Looking ahead

Qualitative insights from a small non-representative sample of educated young people in Jakarta suggest that apart from these demographic variables (of age, education, ethnicity and religion), there were other salient identity markers when young adults were talking about their quest to find a romantic partner. These include region or district of origin, and numerous proxies of social class and lifestyle.


Interviews with middle-class young adults suggest considerations about ethnicity, age gap, and religion occurred once individuals were siloed into distinct dating markets that correspond to their social milieu.


There are also indications of the rising importance of online digital culture for dating among the respondents. Little is known about how this will change the dynamics of dating and the search for marriage partners.


Will it encourage the mixing of people across different social groups, in the ways schooling and tertiary institutions have done? Or will it silo young adults into segregated marriage markets even more? For example, there are now a range of Tinder-like apps for Muslims – Minder, Muzmatch, Crescent, Salaam Swipe dan Hayat – and tailored for specific ethnic groups (for example, Jodoh Batak for Bataks). It remains to be seen how this technology will transform the landscape of marriage, social stratification and inequalities for young Indonesians.


At the outset, studying changing patterns of who marries whom may seem like an esoteric research topic. But in the diverse Indonesian archipelago, where ethno-religious conservatism competes with liberal ideals on family formation, who marries whom becomes a telling indicator of shifts in gender relations, in social stratification and mobility, and in the nature of tolerance and group boundaries.


In other words, studying who marries whom offers a unique window into micro-level contestations that foreground broader socio-political transformations that have followed reformasi, creating a world that would be unrecognisable to Sitti Nurbaya.


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