Inul Daratista: 'The devil’s dancer'

She is a singer, dancer, and a political hot potato. Waggling her hips in Indonesia’s "dangdut" style, Inul Daratista is hitting the big time and courting controversy as she goes.

The public loves her, the president’s husband has danced with her, but hard-line Muslims in Indonesia are up in arms.
"Dangdut" itself is not a new phenomenon.

A composite style blending Middle Eastern, Indian and Malay music with the indigenous sound of East Java, it already has stars like Iis Dahlia and Ike Nurjanah to its name. So why has Inul triumphed so spectacularly with it?

Who then is Inul Daratista, whose name roughly translates as "the girl with the breasts"?

Born into a small, strongly Muslim community in East Java, her career took off in stages from the age of 12, when she earned as little as $1 a gig.

People have since been shocked, delighted and astonished by her "drill dancing" style. Local businessmen quickly cottoned onto the commercial potential of her pumping manouevres.

Videos of Inul’s live performances sell out all over the country. Fans exhaust the stocks of street vendors and music shops alike. Pirate copies simply serve to spread the word.

The Indonesian media is ravenous to write anything about its new darling. Inul subsequently commands fantastic sums of money. Lately, she has been given her own TV show, for which she was paid 60m rupiah. Bear in mind that the TV station’s own annual budget is 500m rupiah.

Inul’s rise to Asian super-stardom has been greatly helped by her controversial banning by the Indonesian Ulema religious leaders' Council (MUI).

MUI is well known as a moral watchdog in Indonesia. In the beginning it was content simply to criticise, slamming her dance act as "too erotic."

Inul ignored them, citing the artistic worth of her style. MUI counter-attacked with a fatwa – an announcement forbidding Muslims from watching her.

MUI had released a fatwa on pornography in August 2002. It recommended all publishers and chief editors should cease the publication of erotic acts in picture, article, voice or advertisement formats. It also urged the authorities to take a firm, decisive approach and to rigorously uphold the law.

MUI believes that Inul breaches this regulation and duly banned her. Perhaps surprisingly, this uncompromising edict has been backed up by the king of dangdut, Rhoma Irama.

Well-known as a top song writer, he often quotes extracts from the Koran in his songs. He has said that Inul’s dance is not part of an Islamic way of life and has forbidden her to sing his songs.

Inul, who relies on singing songs made popular by dangdut performers like Rhoma Irama, claims to be a devout Muslim. One might anyway suspect that Irama’s motives are more financially than religiously motivated. His popularity among true believers has benefitted, and several noted writers have taken his side.

Those concerned with cultural reform in Indonesia freely admit that Inul’s style is sexually explicit. It is her right to express herself that they are championing.

This is an old, old story: the artist versus the establishment, individualism versus orthodoxy. And let us not forget that Inul is a woman. What we have here is the classic story of dissent in the face of patriarchal power.

Saparinah Sadli, a spokesperson for the Indonesian Human Rights Commission on Women, considers the religious condemnation an attack on women – and a violation of human rights.

“They violated her right to express,” she explains. “Yes, we may have differences on how to express ourselves. But in this case, she has to bear a deep trauma.”

The chairman of MUI, Hasyim Muzadi, feels that Inul’s case is just one symptom of a greater malaise. In his view, sex is infecting Indonesia.

“Inul’s a small problem,” he states. “We must pay more attention to eradicating eroticism.”

Orwellian words, bringing to mind the orgasm-abolishing party from the great author's timeless book, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

But there are other issues at play, quite apart from the controversy that such puritanism arouses.

Many observers believe that the Inul scandal has been cynically over-played to divert the focus away from Indonesia's other "ills" - like political corruption, the widespread abuse of women and children, and the seemingly unshakeable poverty that blights the nation.

It is this very poverty that has led to such intense sympathy from the general public for Inul Daratista – the child of the slums who is gyrating her way to a fortune.