12 October 2007

Women Warriors and Pencak Silat

In Indonesia, the adventures of women warriors are often depicted in traditional theater forms, such as the wayang kulit (leather puppets) and wayang orang (human puppets). In the story of Mahabarata, Srikandi is a women warrior who uses her arrow and piles to kill various giants symbolizing wickedness. This story from the Hindu epics serves as guidance to the Javanese people and symbolizes that from time to time ‘Srikandi’ will be born to defend the country.

04enny01.jpgAnd indeed, Javanese history is full of examples of women warriors. Since the Hindu times, women in Java and Bali fulfilled leading roles. For example, after leading many battles, Queen Sima reigned the Kalingga (842 ca) and Queen Rakryan Binihaji Parameswari Dyah Kebi ruled the Singasari Kingdom (1015 ca). In more recent times, during the Java War against the Dutch (1825-1830) Prince (Pangeran) Diponogoro employed two women as commanders, while during the Aceh War (1873 -1892) one of the most famous leader was Cut Nya’din who with her rencong (Acehese kris: double -bladed dagger) courageously fought against the Dutch colonialists.

The combative role of women is also reflected in the developments of pencak silat. We cannot forget that women have contributed to the origin of pencak silat, at least according to various legends and myths. In Indonesia people believe that pencak silat was first practiced by a women who imitated the movements of animals she had seen fighting to defend herself from her angry husband. For example, in the small island of Bawean on the North coast of Java, the dominant legend claims that a woman was the pioneer of pencak silat learning her techniques from some monkeys:

Rama Sukana went to the river to do the wash. Suddenly, she saw on the side of the river a pair of monkeys fighting. One of the monkeys repeatedly attacked the other one with a tree’s tack while the other monkey was jumping and moving aside to avoid the blows. Rama Sukana stopped her activities and took notice of the monkeys’ fighting techniques. She was so enthusiast that she did not finish her works and arrived late at home. The husband, Rama Isruna who had been waiting, become hungry and tried to beat her but she used the techniques she had just learned from the monkeys to avoid the husband’s attack. In the end, Rama Istruna became tired and asked his wife where she had learned such fantastic techniques. After Rama Sukama explained to him her experience, the husband asked her to train him. Now these techniques are known as pencak Bawean.

Similar stories are also told in other Indonesian provinces. In West Java, the Cimande style is said to derive from the wife of Aba Kaher who learned her techniques from a tiger fighting with a monkey. Also in neighboring Malaysia, such stories are popular:

One day in a village, a housewife who was carrying food in a basket above her head was attacked by a group of birds that tried to steal her food. The housewife tried to move from the right to the left and from the left to the right to avoid the attack of the birds. She also kept moving forward and back, trying to skim them with the hands. Doing so, she lost time and arrived late at home. She tried to explain to her furious husband what had happened, but he would not accept it. He attacked her and she had to defend herself with the same movements she had just practiced with the birds. The husband was unable to touch her, eventually got tired, and finally asked her to teach him the techniques she had just employed. With dedication, he practiced with his wife and developed what is now known as seni silat.(Tuan Ismail Tuan Soh 1991:36-37)

Women are not only present in the myths, but actively practice and teach pencak silat. Some of them are also widely recognized for their knowledge and skills. The most famous today are Ibu Soekedja, pendekar of the Perguruan Pencak Silat Reksa Diri, Bandung and Ibu Enny Rukmini Sekarningrat, Guru Besar Himpunan Pencak Silat Panglipur West Java, the largest and one of the most respected perguruan in West Java with branches in The Netherlands, Japan, and Vietnam. In her persona she combines pencak silat and combative skills as the following case of her life shows:

On March 1949, when the Dutch colonialists came back again to bomb Yogyakarta, Enny Rukmini joined the battalion Pangeran Papak and fought against the Dutch in the districts of Wanaraja and Garut. To defend the capital city of Yogyakarta she joined the long march from Garut to Yogyakarta (about 400 km.) with the Batalyon Major Rukman. Since guns were limited and anyway she did not know how to use them, she was satisfied with using the sword (golok) in combination with jurus pencak silat and ilmu kebal as her weapons in the battlefield.

After the war was over, she came back home in Garut and took over from her father the perguron pencak silat Panglipur. She then went to Bandung to bring together the students of her father and start to train pencak silat together. The first training was in her house, in a small street still called Gang Panglipur in honor of this important pencak silat school. From that time on Ibu Enny Rukmini Sekarningrat rebuild the Perguron Pencak Silat Panglipur and more generally pencak silat in West Java together with other pendekar such as Pak Uca, Pak Uho, Hadji Sapari, and M. Saleh. She was instrumental in promoting pencak silat in schools and university and greatly advanced pencak silat seni (art). She was the first to drastically reform pencak silat seni and to use it as a form of performance, by changing the black pencak silat custom with glamorous uniforms of bright colors.

Her innovative ideas often provoked critics from more conservative groups, but finally received official recognition in 1953 when her group performed at the 1st Asian-Africa Conference in Bandung. Ibu Enny was also the first to support IPSI in developing competitions of pencak silat seni. At the moment, she is one of the ‘elders’ (sesepuh) of IPSI and recognized as the leading pendekar or Guru Besar of the renamed Himpunan Pencak Silat Panglipur, the biggest pencak silat school in West Java. At 85 years she is still totally devoted to the development of pencak silat in West Java and more generally the world.

It would seem then that women have played a great role in the development of pencak silat from the beginning up to today. Their contribution should be treasured and highlighted in an effort to make present-day pencak silat more accessible to women and enhance their position in institutionalized pencak silat organizations, such as IPSI and PERSILAT.


  1. Hall, D., 1988 Sejarah Asia Tenggara. Surabaya: Usaha Nasional 1988
  2. O’ong Maryono, 1998 Pencak silat Merentang Waktu. Yogyakarta: Pustaka Pelajar
  3. Tuan Ismail Tuan Soh, 1991 Silat Sekebun. Seni Silat Melayu Dengan Tumpuan Kepada Seni.
  4. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kementrian Pendidikan Malaysia

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