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Customs of Indonesia

Marriage and Family

Women in rural areas are often married by the time they are 20 years old. Although people throughout the country have more freedom to choose their own marriage partners than they had in the past, rural families are generally more involved than urban families are in the choice of their children's spouses, and men generally have somewhat more freedom in choosing their spouses than women have. Engagement is more than an agreement between the future bride and groom; it binds the two families. Members of the extended family often live under the same roof or near one another. Older people are shown special respect.

In most regions, the home is traditionally dominated by the father, and the mother is responsible for raising children and caring for the household. In urban areas, however, the trend today is for many women to work outside the home, and women now make up 37.9 percent (2005) of the labor force. Women occupy 12 percent of the seats in parliament and generally have as much access to education as men do. Indonesian women have more rights than women in other predominantly Muslim countries, including rights in property settlements, inheritance, and divorce. Among the Minangkabau ethnic group, the mother is the dominant figure in the household, and extended families group together according to matrilineal descent.


Rice is the staple and is eaten at every meal. Vegetables, fish, and hot sauces are often served with the rice; specific dishes vary according to the region. Tea and coffee are the most common drinks. Fresh fruit is widely available and is often eaten as dessert. Popular meats include beef and chicken. Observant Muslims do not eat pork. Chilies are often used (sometimes in large quantities) in cooking, as are other spices. Coconut milk is used to cook particularly spicy food known as padang food, named after the city on Sumatra where it originated. In the capital, Jakarta, restaurants serve a variety of different cuisines, although the range is not as extensive as in some other Southeast Asian capitals.

Many Indonesians eat with a spoon and fork, but more traditional families eat with their hands. Generally, the fork is held in the left hand and the spoon in the right, and both hands are kept above the table while eating. It is impolite to eat or drink until invited to do so by the host. Finishing a drink implies the desire for the glass to be refilled. There are many street vendors selling food, but people who purchase food should always sit to eat because it is considered inappropriate to eat while standing or walking on the street.


Indonesian culture is based on honor and respect for the individual. Letters begin with Dengan hormat, meaning “With respect,” and respect is important in greeting others. Status is also important; the most senior person or the host should be greeted first, and special deference should be shown to older people. A nod or slight bow is the usual form of greeting, although when meeting someone for the first time it is normal to shake hands as well. Handshakes are also used when congratulating someone or when saying goodbye before a long trip. Titles are very important and should be used when greeting and in general conversation. The most formal introduction would include, in roughly this order, Bapak (“Sir”) or Ibu (“Madam”), an academic or professional title (if applicable), the noble title (if the person uses it), and the person’s given and family names. Many Indonesians, especially the Javanese, have only one name and are therefore addressed both formally and casually by that name. Business representatives often exchange cards when greeting each other.

When socializing, one never touches the head of another person. Unless married or engaged to her, a man usually does not touch a woman in public, except to shake hands. The left hand is not used to shake hands, touch others, point, eat, or give or receive objects.

Indonesians believe that visits bring honor to the host, and they warmly welcome all guests. Unannounced visits are common. When a visit has been prearranged it is usual to arrive half an hour after the appointed time. Visitors sit when invited to, but will also rise when the host or hostess enters the room, because deference to one’s host is very important. A drink is often served, but a guest does not drink until invited to. A person may cause offense by refusing when food or drink is offered. Blunt talk should be avoided. If the host or hostess is not wearing footwear, it is polite for visitors to remove theirs. Shoes are removed before entering carpeted rooms, feasting places, places of funeral viewings, mosques, and other holy places. Gifts are not opened in the giver’s presence.


Badminton and soccer are the most popular sports, and many people play volleyball and tennis. Shadow-puppet theater is a traditional art, and performances are particularly common in rural areas and on special occasions. Other recreational activities include watching television and going to the cinema. Censorship is strict.

Holidays and Celebrations

Indonesians celebrate the International New Year on 1 January. Muslims celebrate Idul-Fitri, a three-day feast at the end of Ramadan. Idul-Adha is a three-day festival for those not on the pilgrimage to Mecca (Makkah); it honors Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son at Allah’s behest. The birthday of the Prophet Muhammad is commemorated in July or August, according to the lunar calendar.

In Bali, a festival called Pengrupukan celebrates the New Year and the arrival of spring in March or April. The festival’s aim is to roust out the devils that, having been swept out of Hades following the rainy season, have gone into hiding on the island. The Balinese make elaborate offerings to lure the devils out and then run through the streets, their bodies painted, bearing torches and making noise to drive them off the island. The following day is Nyepí, when the emphasis is on silence and introspection; businesses are closed and people stay at home.

Christian holidays include Good Friday and Christmas (25 December), which are both public holidays. Easter Sunday and Ascension Day are also observed. The latter, 40 days after Easter, marks the day when Jesus Christ is said to have ascended to Heaven.

A pioneer for women’s rights in Indonesia is honored on Kartini Day (21 April). Raden Ajeng Kartini, or Lady Kartini, was the daughter of a Javanese nobleman and studied at a Dutch school. A foundation established in her name after her early death at age 25 opened the first girls’ school in Java in 1916. Independence Day is celebrated on 17 August and is considered the most important holiday in Indonesia. There are also hundreds of holidays related to other regional, religious, and cultural groups.

Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas