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This article investigates the use of the word pelakor on Instagram by Indonesians. Pelakor (short for Perebut Laki Orang, literally meaning ‘a thief of someone else’s husband’) is a coined term used popularly to refer to a woman perceived as responsible for ruining a couple’s marriage. Adopting a textual and interpretive analysis as my method, I analyse the ways in which this term is used as a social label that sanctions women while erasing the role of men in narratives of infidelity. Building on feminist critical discourse analysis, the study shows how pelakor is sociolinguistically grounded in gender bias, revealing both a misogynistic attitude deeply rooted in Indonesian society and the critical role played by social media. This study contributes to the field of social media discourse studies, a growing area of research in sociolinguistics, by exploring the use of a sexist term on Instagram.


This article investigates the nexus of the term for ‘the other woman’ (hereafter pelakor) within the socio-cultural constructions of sexuality and gender as understood by many Indonesians. I use Critical Discourse Studies (CDS) and Feminist Critical Discourse Analysis (FCDA) as perspectives to uncover gender inequity as it is rooted in the construction of Indonesianness (cf. Lazar, 2007, 2014, 2017; cf. van Dijk, 1993, 2014).

There are two focal points of this study: Firstly, I argue that pelakor (perebut laki orang, literally meaning ‘a thief of someone else’s husband’) is a gender-biased term that judges groups of women while exculpating men. In this article, I focus on the use of pelakor as both a linguistic and a rhetorical term that blames and shames women while directing little or no blame at men. I thus find the increasingly noticeable use of pelakor in social media and other discourses to be a “discursive injustice” (cf. van Dijk, 2014, p. 390) that warrants critical evaluation. I also show that transitive verbs function to pinpoint women as the sole social actors behind extramarital affairs.

Secondly, I argue that, while widely known as a graphic- and text-based social media platform where news is frequently shared among internet citizens (netizens), Instagram also serves as an amplifier to disseminate discriminatory gender norms and ideologies. I treat Instagram as a site where many Indonesians not only discuss their interests, but also construct and impose their ideologies and social perceptions of gender (cf. Kang & Chen, 2014). As the analysis will later reveal, these Instagram posts are raw, uncensored, and contributed by heterogeneous Indonesians who appear to shape the notion of a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Indonesian woman.

Using a poststructuralist viewpoint, I approach discourse as a way of thinking, feeling, acting, and making meaning in social practices that are reinforced and repeated due to unequal and negotiated power. I adopt a Foucauldian definition of modern power that views it as an instrument that is discursively negotiated, vested in every individual, and exercised in multifarious forms (Foucault, 1976, 1991), which is similar to Bourdieu’s (1991) notion of habitus. All of these perspectives are important to understanding how many Indonesians have exercised their power, as mediated by social media, to reinforce expectations for a ‘good’ Indonesian woman and to regulate women’s behaviour. In this light, I treat the online interaction on Instagram investigated here as a ‘disciplinary society’ (Foucault, 1991).

In order to bring to light a social phenomenon through analysis of the sexist term pelakor on the given online platform, I situate this study in the fields of sociolinguistics, computer-mediated discourse, gender studies, and Indonesian studies. In relation to language representation, many sociolinguistic studies investigating digital communities have explored the use of languages such as English, Spanish, and German in virtual environments (e.g., Androutsopolous, 2006a, 2006b, 2007a, 2007b, 2008; Del-Teso-Craviotto, 2006; Herring, 1994, 2003, 2010; Herring & Paolillo, 2006). With respect to the social media milieu, Indonesia has one of the largest numbers of social media users, ranked after China, India, the United States, and Brazil (Lim, 2017; Statista.com, 2018). This study thus contributes research on a non-English-dominated language group on social media (cf. Lee & Chau, 2018). Although it is the country hosting the fifth-largest community of internet users globally, only a few studies have been conducted on how Indonesians use social media (e.g., Lim, 2012, 2013, 2017). The existing body of literature has investigated how social media has impacted social and political movements in Indonesia and in other countries (Lim, 2017, 2018a, 2018b). Other studies have examined social campaigns in areas in Indonesia where Facebook and WhatsApp have proven to be effective platforms for online discussion and campaigns (Großmann, 2018), as well as how Indonesian Muslim women utilize Facebook to rework and redefine their understanding of Islam (Savitri, 2018). Very little research has been done on sexist terms in discourses mediated by social media in Indonesia or globally (cf. Lee & Chau, 2018). Contributing to a limited but growing body of literature, this study examines the link between Instagram and terms shaped by gender bias.

Aiming to contribute to the understanding of the socio-cultural construction of normative gender and sexuality, I focus on gender bias and stigma on Instagram. I examine emerging verbal practices and androcentric attitudes in Indonesian online communities against the socio-cultural and political dynamics of the post-New Order era, or the era that started shortly after the country’s authoritarian president, Suharto, resigned from office in 1998. I argue that pelakor is a neologism reflecting an androcentric attitude and that Instagram has played a vital role in circulating it. Through a textual and interpretive analysis, I also show how the transitive verbs used on Instagram posts and comments have discursively blamed and shamed women in an unjust discourse and in a negative light, while absolving the involvement of men. In the conclusion section, I make some observations on conducting a discourse analysis from an Indonesian point of view, and I suggest directions for future research.

The Context

In the 1990s, pelakor was used in a number of television gossip programmes to refer to Mayang Sari, a former Indonesian singer who was perceived to be the ‘homewrecker’ of the marriage of Bambang Suharto, the son of former president Suharto. In early 2018 the term made a comeback after two controversial affairs that involved two Instagram celebrities. One was a former legal wife whose husband had an affair with an actress, Jennifer Dunn. The wife's posts received a lot of attention from Instagram users, making her a selegram (an Instagram celebrity), a neologism used by many Indonesians for figures who become famous due to Instagram. The other selegram is a medical doctor, whose case is the focus of this research. Her private matters have been widely covered in social media, and from there the commentary travelled from the selegram’s Instagram posts to digital Indonesian newspapers and television gossip shows. On social media as well as in online newspapers, many Indonesians appeared to offer sympathy to the doctor, who was largely portrayed as the victim of a pelakor. They made numerous comments about the other woman, while there was a noticeable absence of attention to the man’s role and involvement in the affair. The husband is also a medical doctor who is a lecturer in the school of medicine, where the pelakor is his student and a doctor in training. The adverse rhetoric was largely aimed at the accused woman, as indexed by the repeated use of the term pelakor.

I focus on Instagram, a social media platform that has seen, in the last few years, the fastest rate of growth around the globe (Pew Research Center, 2018; Sheldon & Bryant, 2016). Compared to Facebook and other social media platforms, Instagram is a relatively new microblogging platform that was originally launched as an iOS and Android application in October 2010 and that provides a number of image filter features to post and share pictures and videos (Fox & Rooney, 2015; Kim, Seely, & Jung, 2017; Lee & Chau, 2018). With the shift from Facebook and other social networking services to Instagram particularly by younger users (Pew Research, 2018; Sheldon & Bryant, 2016), Instagram constitutes a considerable archive of empirical data for linguistically-oriented discourse studies. Indonesia was chosen as my area of research because it hosts one of the largest communities of Instagram users where the sexist term pelakor is visible and frequently used.

Indonesia’s contemporary socio-cultural and political life has been greatly influenced by the New Order era. Since its independence from the Dutch in 1945 to mid-1998, when Suharto resigned from office, Indonesia has had only two presidents: Sukarno, whose period is referred to as the Old Order, and Suharto, whose era is referred to as the New Order government (1966-1998). The New Order regime strongly shaped the discourse and the knowledge about sexuality and the construction of women and men in Indonesia (Bennett, 2005; Davies, 2010, 2015; Suryakusuma, 1996, 2011).

Home of the largest number of Muslims in the world, Indonesia is significantly influenced by Islam, the religion of the majority, in the formation and dissemination of sexual knowledge. Indonesia is a de facto Islamic country (Hefner, 2000, 2018). Although it hosts at least six official religions, including Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism, Indonesia has been influenced by the Islamic concepts installed in the 1945 Constitution and other laws. Every Indonesian is required to embrace one of the official religions, and the government does not officially recognize atheists (Duile, 2018). Because of its religious and cultural dominance, Islam is one of the elements that constructs one’s Indonesianness, along with Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian), the only official and national language (Martin-Anatias, 2018a). This understanding is crucial in order to fully comprehend the role Islam has played in the construction of sexuality and gender.

The concepts of sexuality and gender were learned through the Islamic interpretation of kodrat (nature), harkat (dignity), and martabat (status), particularly during the New Order era (1966-1998). These concepts were integrated into and disseminated by the New Order’s policies and propaganda, as well as in public sermons delivered by religious figures and familial discourse that established the national culture and local customs (adat istiadat) (Blackwood, 2007; Hamid, 2018).

Sexuality was also learned through the mechanism of malu (shame). Just like kodrat, harkat, and martabat, malu has been widely imposed to regulate women more than men; women receive more familial and communal surveillance (Bennett, 2005; Davies, 2015). Through the mechanism of malu, women are scrutinized, labelled, and stigmatized when deemed to transgress normative expectations. For example, if found to have had pre-marital sexual intercourse, a woman may be socially ridiculed and labelled as hancur (damaged or crushed), gampangan/mudah (easy woman), murah (cheap), busuk (rotten), or pelacur/perek (slut) (Bennett, 2005). In cases like these, the affected woman is not the only one receiving social stigma; the whole family will be ostracised. Men, in contrast, generally escape stigmatization. Moreover, because polygyny is legal in Indonesia, a polygynous man will actually be praised as a kuat kawin, a strong man who can have another marriage (kawin) and more sexual intercourse (also kawin), while a polyandrous woman will be labelled promiscuous; thus the latter is virtually non-existent (Bennett, 2005; Nurmila & Bennett, 2015). However, it is important to note that social surveillance is less controlling in urban areas such as Jakarta, Bandung, and Surabaya (Hull, 2003; Utomo & McDonald, 2009).

Moreover, being a male-dominated nation, Indonesia places more social and communal scrutiny on married women than on married men. For the former, the construction of being a ‘good’ Indonesian woman is built upon the conception of Ibuism (‘mother-ism’), in which a woman is expected to be a mainstay in support of her husband’s and other family members’ mental and physical welfare. Within this Ibuism ideology, the Indonesian women’s role is mainly restricted to companion of the husband and mother to their children. Failing to fulfil this role could result in severe stigma or verbal abuse, as we will see in the upcoming findings (see also Martin-Anatias, 2018b; Suryakusuma, 1996, 2011).

It is vital to highlight dominant conceptions of gender in Indonesia in order to understand why a term such as pelakor is frequently used by many Indonesian netizens. In Indonesia, as it is in other countries, gender is socially and politically constructed (Bennet, 2005; cf. Butler, 1990; Davies, 2010, 2015). Jender or gender (as many Indonesians interchangeably use the term) was a non-existent term and a silent concept for many Indonesians until the early-to-mid-1990s, when it was introduced by gender activists; these activists were viewed as feminists and largely stigmatized. The notion of gender as a social construct has been learned through globalization, in which US popular culture and mass media have played an important role; therefore, gender is perceived as a Westernized/Americanized issue (kebarat-baratan). Thus, the concept is foreign and relatively new for many (Adamson, 2007; Blackburn, 2004; Davies, 2010). As the New Order era has disseminated the idea that feminists are competitors with men, many Indonesians have discredited feminist theories of gender (Adamson, 2007; Blackburn, 2004). This stigma still holds true today (Martin-Anatias, 2018b). Moreover, the majority of Indonesians have been implicitly taught and have learned to understand sex (together with sexuality) and gender as natural and biologically based as early as kindergarten (Adriany, 2018). Thus, for many Indonesians, sex and gender are synonymous.

In all these ways, the New Order government treated sexuality as a political, public, and national concern rather than as a personal, private, and individual matter, and its influence continues today. The government, together with religious teachings, have constrained women’s sexuality under state and communal surveillance. Men, in contrast, largely escape such surveillance of their sexual behaviour (Bennett, 2005; Davies, 2015; Nurmila & Bennett, 2015). Drawing upon these studies, I argue that the same surveillance and stigma have not only worked in the local community, but also have expanded to a more geographically borderless arena due to social media. I also highlight how supposedly personal marital issues of husband and wife have become public matters in which virtually anyone can actively participate in shaming a woman without necessarily knowing her, also largely due to the role of social media. Specifically, I demonstrate how Instagram has amplified sexist labels used by many Indonesian netizens, who may represent many Indonesians in general, given the close links between offline and online perceptions and attitudes (cf. Androutsopoulos, 2008; Hine, 2000).

Methodology and Data Collection

I approach language in this study by putting it at the centre, not as a grammatical property, but rather as the “everyday life of language in use—or just discourse” (Thurlow & Mroczek, 2011, p. 25). Additionally, I analyse the power asymmetry between men and women, as reflected by pelakor and the verbs used to shame women. In this light, I am approaching discourse through the eyes of a feminist linguist who takes cues from feminist critical discourse analysis (Bucholtz, 2014; Lazar, 2007, 2014, 2017).

In approaching discourse as data, I treat internet interaction as a virtual space that represents many aspects of offline interaction mediated by social media participation (Androutsopolous, 2008; Hine, 2000). In light of this, I have been observing the progression of both offline and online issues by keeping myself updated through social media and checking with my Indonesian circles. Starting from late 2017, I became aware of the term pelakor after being bombarded with it in social media, WhatsApp chats with friends, and Indonesian digital news channels.

Approaching this as a research inquiry, I followed two steps to collect the data. I first collected data by utilizing digital data mining, using the hashtag #pelakor in order to find out how prevalent the term is on Instagram. Utilizing this hashtag as a metadata tool, I was able to search all the discussions related to pelakor and to collect many Indonesians’ posts and opinions related to this particular term. A hashtag is a conventional way to connect with internet users’ thoughts on a particular, shared subject (Townsend & Wallace, 2017; Zappavigna, 2011, 2012). In approaching my data analysis, I made use of Instagram users’ opinions which were visible and accessible in the comment sections, which were found through the hashtag.

Secondly, upon careful investigation and rechecking with digital and online newspapers, I chose an Instagram celebrity, a medical doctor and a mother of two, whose husband’s involvement in an extramarital affair was widely known from her own Instagram posts, dated in early 2018. Hereafter, I refer her as the selegram doctor. I mined the data from her Instagram account, which at that time was still publicly accessible. From early 2018 until January 2019, the posts and comments were both publicly available on the Instagram application and the Instagram website, which one did not need an account to access. There was no password needed to search and collect posts and comments related to pelakor. Unlike researching other (closed) online communities where I might need to set up and “enter” (see Androutsopoulos, 2006b; Del-Teso-Craviotto, 2006; Dovchin, 2015), I did not need to enter these already public communities. I then began the data mining process in early 2018 and continued through mid-2018, during which time I assiduously collected all comments related to the theme and topic. Altogether, I collected approximately 230,000 instances of pelakor on Instagram.

My analysis began by categorizing the data, which I then examined more closely using discourse analysis, going beyond words (Tannen, 1994) to do systematic observation (Androutsopoulos, 2006b; Hine, 2000; Lazar, 2014) and interpretive and textual analysis (cf. Lazar, 2014; Lee, 2012; Martin-Anatias, 2018a). My analysis is aimed at investigating the micro-level interaction and textual practices of Instagram users in order to uncover the larger social system, belief systems, and hierarchies of knowledge (cf. Foucault, 1976, 1991; Thurlow & Mroczek, 2011). My interpretation is thus sociolinguistically oriented, in the sense that I am approaching data by looking at the connection between language selection and its use in the given society.

For ethical reasons and to safeguard users’ privacy, I have removed the names of account owners, referring to general users with pseudonyms, for example, @X1, @X2, and the legal wife as ‘the first wife.’ I have also “fabricated” the presentation of the data by not using the original Instagram interface so that it will not be easily searchable or traceable (Markham, 2012; Markham & Buchanan, 2012; Townsend & Wallace, 2017). However, I reproduce the utterances of the posts and comments verbatim as a way to maintain the fidelity of the data (Markham, 2012). When gender identity is necessary to the analysis, I use the commenters’ self-identification and refer to gender in binary terms – men and women – because recognition that gender is not binary is absent from the discourse I examine here. In non-English sentences, I provide my English translation for wider readability, while I preserve the term pelakor as is, in order to mark how frequently the term is used.

As for the researcher’s positioning, I consider my role that of a voyeur or an over-hearer, that is, an observing individual who is not visible or recognised by the communities researched. I adopted and modified this term from Allan Bell’s audio-design framework (Bell, 1984).

Findings and Analysis

I categorise my findings according to three thematic divisions that I examine in unwrapping sexism in the social media data. Firstly, I elaborate the role Instagram has played in disseminating linguistic violence towards women. Secondly, I analyse the formation of the word pelakor and the verbs used frequently to refer to the other woman by Instagram users. Next, I investigate the rhetorical use of pelakor and the absence of a corresponding label for men, which I read as a removal of the equal responsibility of the man. Lastly, I discuss how many Indonesians position the legal wife and the husband through their linguistic usage as a way to uncover male dominance in Indonesian communities.

The Power of Instagram

As we will see in the upcoming examples, not only is Instagram a space where many Indonesians try to negotiate their ideological views on what it means to be a ‘good’ woman, but it provides an ideal space and an effective platform for disseminating the epithet pelakor among Indonesians, as demonstrated by Extract 1. Many also use it to clarify a supposedly private situation, as demonstrated by the following extract. The majority of the examples are in support of the selegram doctor as the legal wife, unless otherwise noted. The commenters who do not specifically comment on the wife’s post or support her usually draw on their own experiences as the victim of a pelakor, as we will see in the later extracts.

In the first example, @X1 consoles the wife and condemns the pelakor and pelakors in general. (@ is a symbol that identifies a user’s Instagram account.)

Extract 1 (@X1)

Jaman skr klarifikasi harus di medsos biar orang2 pada tau sifat buruk sipelakor. Siapa suruh kurang ajar, udah salah belagu lagi, pake laporin orang segala ke polisi. Skr mampus kamu Tuhan sedang membalas perbuatan bejatmu.

‘In this era a clarification through social media is a must so everyone knows what kinds of bad attitude this pelakor has. Who asks her to step over the boundaries? She is on the wrong side but acts innocent. Not to mention, she reported the wife to the police. Now, you die and see how God punishes you for your lecherous act.’

@X1 supports the decision of the wife to post about the husband’s extramarital affair for public consumption on Instagram. For @X1, it is important and necessary to clarify the issue through social media so that everyone knows the pelakor’s bad qualities. In @X1’s estimation, this can function as a warning for other married women and a deterrent for other potential ‘other women.’ The stigma towards pelakor is loud and clear in what constitutes an actual death threat. However, while the writer’s abhorrence of pelakor is crystal clear, no mention is made of the man. In this sense, social media becomes a powerful weapon to stigmatize pelakor, at the same time endorsing misogynist attitudes. Instagram has played this important role for many Indonesians, presumably those with access to both mobile phones and an internet connection, to discuss and elaborate certain topics while simultaneously transgressing other people’s personal and private boundaries.

In the upcoming extracts, we will see how many Indonesians have utilized and manipulated Instagram via discursive language choices to disseminate the gender-biased term and simultaneously construct the ‘good’ Indonesian woman.

Active Verbs Used to Describe the Actions of ‘the Other Woman’

Prior to analysing the Instagram posts, we must first unpack pelakor’s grammatical features. The making of pelakor as a neologism is the result of a morphological blending process that fuses the first or the last syllable of at least two different sources to make a new term with a new meaning. An example in English is brunch from br(eakfast) and (l)unch (cf. Gries, 2004). In Indonesian, the blending process is guided by a spelling system policy and guidelines (Pedoman Umum Ejaan Bahasa Indonesia, PUEBI) that includes at least eight guidelines on how to make acronyms (Sugiyono, 2016). In pelakor, pe- is taken from perebut (‘thief’), la- from laki (‘man’), and or- from orang (‘someone else’) to mean ‘a thief of someone else’s man.’ Pe- in Indonesian is a prefix used to derive an agent, a doer, or an actor from an active verb (indicated by the prefix me-). The derived term from merebut (‘to steal’), an active verb that requires an active agent or social actor to be held responsible, is perebut (‘thief’). The term pelakor is thus already biased because it positions the woman as perebut (a ‘thief’), an active agent, and positions the man as passive, a stolen object. Aside from the in-built linguistic injustice of the term, netizens’ rhetorical use clearly demonstrates their inclination to shame only the woman involved in the affair, as demonstrated by the extracts to follow.

In the following section, I show how Indonesian internet users employ a number of verbs, both formal and colloquial, to position the ‘other woman’ as an active agent. A number of verbs are used to treat the woman as a thief, from nyolong (‘to steal’), rebut (‘to rob/grab or to capture’), menguasai (‘to dominate’), membegal (‘to seize’), ngerebut (‘to steal’), and ngerusak rumah tangga orang (‘to wreck someone’s household’). These verbs represent different degrees of formality; me- is a formal prefix that creates a transitive verb, while nge- and ny- are both colloquial prefixes that share a similar function with me-, as I will discuss further below.

In the next extract, @X2 clearly positions the pelakor as a thief through her use of an active verb, nyolong, a Colloquial Jakartan Indonesian (CJI) term for stealing.

Extract 2 (@X2)

Pelakor ga ada otak nya...udh nyolong bpk nya skrng mau ambil anak nya.. Mudah-mudahan Allah selalu melindungi mba dan anak-anak yaa

‘The pelakor has no brain… she has stolen the father from his children. Now, she wants to steal the children as well. May Allah always protect you, sister and your children.’

In extract 2, @X2 situates the pelakor as someone who has no brain and who “steals” somebody else’s children (anak-anak) and their father. For many Indonesians, being “brainless” equates with being “abnormal” and is used to mock someone who transgresses normative values. Here, the auditors, addressees, and voyeurs (hereafter, readers) (Bell, 1984) of the comment are invited to see the pelakor (and also pelakors in general) as an “abnormal” woman who has no shame and who actively “steals” the man.

The last sentence is intended for the wife, so that God (Allah) may protect her and her children. I interpret this statement in at least two ways. Firstly, in this statement @X2 tries to establish religious solidarity with the wife. Via this solidarity, she wishes the legal wife and her children well by asking God to protect them (from the misery caused by the affair). Secondly, this statement shows how Islam plays an important role in many Indonesians’ lives, as mentioned earlier.

Another Indonesian term for ‘stealing’ is used in the following post to refer to the action done by the pelakor. While @X2 used the CJI term, @X3 uses a slightly less formal variety, rebut . Rebut is the base word of merebut (a Standardised Indonesian term, meaning ‘to rob/grab or to capture forcefully’), which is used in a less formal situation.

Extract 3 (@X3)

buat pelakor klo mau ank berdoa lah sama allah ..biar di ksh titipan dunia terindah...jgn berdoa selalu ingin rebut suami org dan ingn menguasi suami org.

‘to Pelakor, (if you) wanted to have some children, pray to God so He can grant you some, the best gift in the world…. don’t pray to steal someone else’s husband and to dominate him.’

Like @X2, @X3 positions the pelakor as a robber, through the use of rebut ‘to rob.’ Again, the pelakor is positioned as someone who transgresses boundaries by becoming a thief or a robber, that is, by committing a crime. For being a criminal, she suggests that the pelakor, who may not necessarily be a reader of this comment, pray to God so she can conceive her own children. Additionally, the illegal action of ‘robbing’ is followed by ‘to dominate’. Here, the readers are invited to view the pelakor (and pelakors in general) as someone who is in control and can dominate the man. Her will may not be as strong as her temptation; therefore, @X3 strongly advises her to pray to God so that He may help reduce her temptation to steal and also to dominate the husband. This “suggestion” could also act as a deterrent or a warning to other women to avoid this misconduct. Again, the husband or the man is positioned as an inactive, powerless, and passive object who can be stolen and dominated. Through rebut (‘to grab forcefully’) and mendominasi (‘to dominate’), the man is abstracted into a kind of non-entity who cannot be held accountable in the affair in which he is also involved.

We see also how @X3 prays to God and asks the pelakor to do the same, which informs us on at least two essential points: Firstly, it shows how important religion is as a way to prevent the bad deeds the pelakor has done or will do. Secondly, it implies that the pelakor is the only individual who needs to be fully aware of all their ‘wrongdoing,’ leaving the man unaccountable.

In addition to the use of ‘to steal’ and ‘to rob,’ pelakors are also positioned as pembegal, a robber who eventually will kill their victim(s), as shown in extract 4. In this extract, although @X4 is commenting on the wife’s case, her/his statement refers to any pelakor.

Extract (@X4)

Pelakor kan pembegal juga. Mbegal suami orang. Bunuh aja kalik yaaa.

‘A/the pelakor is also a robber. To rob another’s husband. Let’s just kill (her).

In order to provide better readability for English readers, I have added both the definite and indefinite articles before the noun pelakor in my English translation. In the original Indonesian post, however, no article is used. Non-standard Indonesian does not require any article in front of a noun, unlike in English. Context is necessary in order to understand the sentence correctly. In this context, @X4’s comment can refer to either the pelakor or a pelakor in general. @X4’s comment on the wife’s post can implicitly be taken as a supporting statement towards the wife, the selegram doctor. However, she does not specifically mention the wife or the particular pelakor. Thus, her “warning” can be directed at any pelakor in general.

Moreover, while still positioning the woman as a robber of somebody else’s man, @X4 uses a different verb to identify the action done, m(em)begal, a formal Indonesian verb, albeit misspelled in this comment. Membegal is a transitive verb meaning ‘to rob another of their property,’ typically before killing the owner. Here @X4 is using a much stronger expression than ‘to steal’ (merebut/rebut/ngerebut). Through use of the term m(em)begal, @X4 also positions the man as a powerless victim: property that is readily robbed. Additionally, she also hints that a/the pelakor is such a criminal that she deserves to be killed because of the crimes she has committed.

Other commenters positioned pelakor as a homewrecker, or someone responsible for destroying another’s household. Ngerusak, a CJI term, is a transitive verb derived from merusak (a Standardised Indonesian active verb for destroying something), as illustrated in the following extract.

Extract 5 (@X5)

Cantikan istrinya ketimbang tu pelakor. Malu2in aja ah. Ngerusak RT org aja

‘The wife is more beautiful than the pelakor. Shame on you. (How could you) wreck someone’s household!’

Through an active verb, ngerusak ‘to destroy,’ @X5 views the pelakor as the sole person responsible in the affair. Because ngerusak is also a transitive verb, the commenter places RT (Rumah Tangga, one’s household) right after the verb, making it much clearer that the pelakor is the sole actor responsible for the destroyed marriage, again leaving the man untouched.

Another active verb used by Instagram users to describe the pelakor’s actions is ng(e)rebut (‘to seize’), as illustrated in extract 6 below.

Extract 6 (@X6)

semacam ayam kampus kali ya kak itu yg ngrebut lakinya kak Y.

‘(she is) like a prostitute, right, sister, who seizes and seduces the husband of Sister Y (the name of the selegram doctor).’

Like ngerusak, ngerebut (‘to seize’) is a CJI active and transitive verb. In positioning the pelakor as someone who ‘seizes’ and sexually ‘seduces’ the man (lakinya) through the term ayam kampus (‘a college-student prostitute’), @X6 clearly situates the man as actively taken or ‘seized’ and seduced, highlighting the power imbalance assigned to the woman and the man involved. It is intriguing to see how the pelakor is positioned to be powerful and controlling, and therefore culpable in the context of an extramarital affair, whereas customarily it is Indonesian men who are portrayed as powerful and dominating in most other contexts (Bennett, 2005, 2015; Davies, 2015; Suryakusuma, 1996, 2011). Power in this context is both a coercive instrument and an asymmetrically relational form (cf. Foucault, 1976, 1991; Lazar, 2014, 2017) and is understood to be rather negative. Thus, when it comes to extramarital discourse, there is a shift of power from the man to the woman, yet this shift is considered unfavourable.

Unlike @X2-@X5, @X6 does not use pelakor to refer to the other woman. Instead @X6 regards her as ayam kampus, a derogatory term for a college student who is also a sex worker. In @X6’s view, pelakors are prostitutes, in the sense that they are after monetary benefit from someone else’s husband. The comparison between a pelakor and a prostitute may not be a direct equation for many Westerners, because prostitution can be legal work in a number of Western countries. In Indonesia, however, prostitution is an illegal occupation and is highly condemned according to Islamic values, although prostitutes do exist. Someone who is a prostitute while a college student is highly stigmatized and perceived as an immoral individual who is after easy money. Conflating the persona of pelakor and prostitute, @X6 implies that the woman is financially deprived so she steals someone else’s husband for the sake of money or life betterment. Thus, pelakor is viewed as immoral, sinful, and materialistic. While the term pelakor is missing from her comment, @X6 still manages to denounce pelakors, while leaving the man or the husband unchallenged.

A similar accusation comes from a commenter who positions herself also as a victim of an ‘other woman,’ as demonstrated by the following extract. In keeping with this tendency, in Extract 7 the user puts the sole responsibility on the pelakor in the interest of building awareness of pelakor for other followers and potential readers, auditors, and voyeurs of her posts (cf. Bell, 1984).

Using colloquial Indonesian, @X7 shows her emotion through a number of strong words and phrases, such as jijik (‘disgusted’), berantakan (‘ruined’), and ganggu rumah tangga orang (‘to wreck someone’s household’).

Extract 7 (@X7)

Paling jijik gw ama pelakor. Rumah tangga gue berantakan gara-gara pelakor pengen mapan. Coba cowoknya miskin apa iya pelakornya mau sama yang sudah beristri. Ganggu rumah tangga orang!

‘I feel mostly disgusted by pelakor. My household was ruined because a pelakor wanted to have a settled life. I don’t think this pelakor would go after a man who is poor. You home wrecker!’

In extract 7, @X7 comments on the wife’s post while positioning herself as a betrayed wife, too. In this context, she does not particularly refer to the medical doctor’s other woman, but actually to her own household’s other woman. She pours her heart out, holding a pelakor accountable for her ruined marriage. To her mind, the only one responsible for ruining her marriage is the pelakor. Her husband is implicitly viewed as another victim in addition to herself. The only “flaw” of her husband is that he had money to shelter this woman’s life. While the pelakor is negatively positioned, the man is projected positively as someone with a good financial standing. Here, we are again presented with how unjust the discourse is for women, while men, when they are represented, are projected in a positive light (cf. van Dijk, 2014).

Through these examples, readers are invited to see that both formal and informal varieties of Indonesian are visible and widely and interchangeably used to facilitate discussion shaming the ‘other woman’ on Instagram. Through the use of active and transitive verbs, many Indonesians rhetorically position the particular pelakor and pelakors in general at the nexus of the discourse. Moreover, we see that many internet users position the man as a passive and powerless victim who has been actively seized or stolen by the woman. Extracts X2-X7 demonstrate that many Indonesians use active and transitive verbs, either formal or colloquial, in their online interaction to position the man as an object, and thus helpless, while the woman is positioned as an active subject. Through their comments, many Indonesian netizens thus perpetuate a misogynistic attitude by highlighting only the woman’s responsibility in the adultery narrative. In contrast, the man is implicitly viewed as a victim or a stolen object instead of a perpetrator, both syntactically and rhetorically, and appears to be entirely absent from most narratives, as shown in Extracts 3, 4, 6 and 7. These patterns perpetrate linguistic violence towards woman (cf. Corsevski, 1998).

I read this phenomenon as a social construction that reveals how the Indonesian government, particularly during the New Order era, has successfully manipulated the understanding and imbrication of gender and sexuality. In this light, the understandings of gender and sexuality appear to be shared mutually and consensually among many Indonesian Instagram users (cf. Lazar, 2007, 2017). In all the data that I examined, the term pelakor is predominantly used alone, where the man involved is generally absented in the discourse. Used in isolation, the term pelakor as an epithethas been specifically created to only shame and blame woman, creating a social stigma while simultaneously whitewashing the man’s role in this collaborative activity. This indicates how imbalanced the stigma is, with Instagram users rebuking the woman as opposed to the man, and illustrates how they tend to be rhetorically biased and discriminate against woman. This disproportion alone informs us that the discourse the users construct is discursively unjust towards women (cf. van Dijk, 2014). The majority of users employ the word pelakor, symbolizing a direct blame of the pelakor and to some extent, to the wife, as I discuss in the upcoming extracts. This inclination also shows that women, either as a pelakor or as the wife, are placed at the centre of the infidelity discourse.

Normalised Gender Bias

In addition to blaming the pelakor, the Instagram users also direct blame at the wife. Although not as frequent, a few Instagrammers see the legal wife as the cause of the problem. In Extract 8, @X8 suggests that the selegram doctor, as the wife, may be at fault for the extramarital affair.

Extract 8 (@X8)

Mungkin istri sahnya rewel Dan gak manut mertua

‘Maybe the wife is too demanding and talkative and is not an obedient daughter in law.’

We see from @X8’s statement that marriage for many Indonesians is not only a matter that concerns the husband and wife, but also the in-laws. For @X8, it is normal and understandable that the husband has another woman and engages in an extramarital affair, because the wife may not be an ideal wife, a woman who should be quiet, not talkative, and obedient to her in-laws. Being a strongly opinionated daughter-in-law apparently can cause a husband’s betrayal, and this is viewed as normal in this context. This 'normalisation' again erases the husband’s contribution to the problematic marriage and/or extramarital issue, while a woman is again at fault.

In a similar vein, another user tries to prove that the affair was initiated because of the wife’s negligence, as shown in extract 9.

Extract 9 (@X9)

Istri sah nya pertama di ajakin ke tmpt suami nya kerja skrg which is agak ‘kampung’. Tp dia gk mw Bilang nya ada apa di sana emangnya. Yp nyata ini hasilnya. Ini sih info dr org RS tmpt suami nya kerja. Sy tau info karna saya coass dl d RS tmpt dr. Yxxx kerja.

‘The first wife was asked to follow the husband’s relocation, which is in a ‘remote’ area. But she didn’t want to. She questioned if the area has the same luxury as the place they live in. So, this is how it happened. This piece of information is from an insider who works at the hospital where the husband works. I know it because I used to work as a physician’s assistant where he used to work.’

@X9 may appear to give a balanced argument by pointing out that the wife also contributed to the affair, as opposed to blaming only the pelakor. The wife is implicitly blamed for being a rebellious wife who did not accompany her husband when he was relocated to a remote area. Here, @X9 paints the wife as un-submissive, which poses a challenge to the essentialist definition of a ‘good’ woman and thus a ‘good’ wife. As mentioned earlier, Indonesia as a nation is predominantly patriarchal, positioning the man as the breadwinner and the head of the family. The woman as wife should be a loyal companion to the husband, consistent with the State’s imposition of Ibuism (‘mother-ism’) (Suryakusuma, 1996, 2011). Failing to do so can cause the woman to be stigmatized and, in this case, be blamed for the husband’s infidelity. In light of this, @X9 portrays the husband as a victim, and his extramarital affair is justified by his disobedient wife’s attitude and decision. @X9 assures readers that the information is valid by claiming that she herself had access to behind-the-scenes information relating to the husband. I read this comment as an attempt to again put all the guilt on a woman, in this case, the wife. Moreover, it assumes that the husband’s decision regarding the household is absolute and must be respected, leaving virtually no room for the wife’s. The wife’s decision is not to be heard, but rather it is to be silenced and tamed. Failing to comply with the husband’s decision to relocate resulted in the husband’s affair and thus is chiefly the wife’s fault. The man is again absented from the narrative.

Extracts 8 and 9 clearly indicate that a woman (the first wife) is mainly at fault when it comes to the husband’s affair. In the first comment, the affair was caused by the wife being an unruly daughter-in-law who is presumed to have contributed to the wreck of the household and marriage. Here, the readers are reminded that marriage for many Indonesian households is not only a matter of the husband and wife, but it also involves the extended family and particularly the parents-in-law, who can play an important role in their children’s marriage and relationship. @X8 hints that being a “demanding and talkative” wife and a “not obedient” daughter-in-law are such unpleasant qualities that they justify and normalize the husband’s affair. In @X8’s estimation, these bad qualities unwittingly encouraged the husband to find other woman.

In the second comment, the wife is not a good wife because she failed to show herself as a loyal companion to her husband, a notion imposed during the New Order era for almost 32 years, where a ‘good’ woman is someone who is submissive and diligently follows her husband’s orders (Blackwood, 2007; Suryakusuma, 1996, 2011). Failing to do so, the wife can be labelled as rebellious and rewel, as written by @X8 (literally meaning a person who likes to talk too much, usually a woman), a quality that is undesirable in a ‘good’ wife and a daughter-in-law. In this vein, being a woman and a daughter-in-law who voices her opinion is discouraged, as we can see from extracts 8 and 9. To @X8 and @X9’s minds, these ‘ill-behaved’ qualities can cause and encourage a husband’s involvement with other woman.

The above extracts have shown how the husband as the man involved in the affair was generally absented in the discourse about it. That said, a number of netizens did make comments about the man’s involvement. However, while the pelakor was frequently portrayed with active verbs, the husband is predominantly situated as an individual who has lost his reason, through the use of the terms goblok (‘stupid’) and buta (‘to be blind or losing the ability to value a good quality’) or through the passive voice form dipelet (‘to be under a magical spell’), as reflected in the following extracts.

Extract 10 (@X10)

Cantik.. suaminya kok goblok yaa selingkuh sama cewek murahan -_-

‘(The wife) is beautiful… the husband is so stupid to actually have an affair with the slut.’

@X10 is commenting on a picture of the wife, who is perceived by many netizens as beautiful. The fact that the husband is having an affair with the pelakor, who is considered less attractive, bewilders many netizens, as reflected by @X10. While praising the wife and condemning the pelakor, @X10 simultaneously claims that the husband is stupid for betraying his beautiful wife. @X10 is implying that the husband is not in his right mind. This statement is paradoxical, given that the husband is a medical doctor, a job that requires great intelligence and skill. However, he is seen as a ‘stupid’ person due to his lack of common sense and intelligence when it comes to his personal choice to have an affair with another woman, who, in the eyes of most netizens, is less attractive than the wife. In other words, the only possible reason for the husband to have an affair is that he is not in his right mind. In contrast, the pelakor is positioned as a ‘slut’ who actively seduced the husband; thus, the husband, although actually mentioned here, is still presented as powerless.

Extract 11 conveys a similar sentiment towards the husband.

Extract 11 (@X11)

cantik gini tapi diduain, buta tuh laki. andai kubisa memilikimu mbak

‘(The wife) is beautiful but she is betrayed, the husband is indeed blind. If only I could be yours, sister.’

@X11 is presumably a man who admires the beauty of the selegram doctor’s Instagram picture. In his estimation, the only justification for the husband’s betrayal is his being blind. In this context, the meaning of being blind is figuratively understood as losing one’s ability to judge quality. For @X11, it is hardly possible for a sane, normal man to betray a beautiful woman. In other words, he must not have been himself when the affair took place. This comment thus erases his active involvement in the collaborative affair.

Furthermore, both @X10 and @X11 perceive the first wife to be a beautiful woman and a wife who does not deserve an unfaithful husband. This in itself positions the woman as someone who is defined solely by her beauty, while implying that it is acceptable for an unattractive woman to be betrayed. I read the labelling of the wife as a beauty who does not deserve betrayal as another social stigma that ignores all the other qualities a woman could have.

In the next example, a user situates the man as a powerless victim through the use of a passive voice construction.

Extract 12 (@X12)

Dipelet itumah.

‘I’m pretty sure he is under a magical spell.’

In using the passive voice form dipelet (‘to be under a magical spell’), @X12 implies that the active agent is the pelakor, who actively cast the spell, while the man is seen as losing his reason and as a passive victim of enchantment. Through passivisation, the man as a social actor is erased in order to “avoid apportioning blame or responsibility” (cf. Goatly & Hiradhar, 2016, p. 87) in the case of an extramarital affair. In this light, passive voice erases the role of the man as another perpetrator who should also have been held accountable in the narrative of infidelity. Alternatively, if the active voice had been used (memelet, a transitive verb), the active agent would still have been the other woman, and the man would still be the victim of her action.

In brief, we have seen that pelakor as a sociolinguistic mechanism denies the existence of a man in the adultery narrative. The inclination to shout pelakor without invoking the man exposes the ongoing unfair treatment and perception of women. Moreover, extracts 10-12 show that even when it is acknowledged that the man is engaged in the affair, his behaviour is excused on the grounds that he is not in his right mind or his normal self. In the same vein as the linguistic and rhetorical usage of pelakor, the mention of the husband in the discourse underscores male privilege. He is never situated as a social actor sharing responsibility with the pelakor for the affair. He is absolved and absented. This indicates that gender hierarchies are accepted and uncontested by these internet users, reflecting the normalisation of a misogynistic attitude (cf. Lazar, 2007).

We can also see that Instagram is utilized and manipulated not only for the promotion and projection of photographs (see Fox & Rooney, 2015; Ridgway & Clayton, 2016; Sheldon & Bryant, 2016) but also for a secondary yet increasingly important function, that is, to spread and discuss news on a platform where the majority of participants may not know each other. Through Instagram as a space, albeit a virtual one, many users share their mutual interests in a context where the linguistic resources and understandings of gender are repeated and discursively reinforced (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992). In all of these ways, the male domination of Indonesian society is visible in the digital discourse. It is accomplished specifically through social stigma, via the sociolinguistic mechanism of name calling (cf. McConnell-Ginet, 2003).


Language reflects and reinforces social norms. The neologism pelakor functions as more than a linguistic term. It is essentially the product of massive and organic conversation by many Indonesian netizens, the grassroots social media, and language users. As such, it captures the very core of contemporary Indonesian society. It demonstrates that many Indonesians still uphold a social order based on a gender hierarchy that places men and boys above women and girls (cf. Lazar, 2007), and in which some groups of women are targets of linguistic violence (Corsevski, 1998) and social stigma while men are linguistically and rhetorically invisible, or else their roles in infidelity are discursively excused. The general absence of a corresponding male epithet and negative connotations surrounding a man’s involvement in a reciprocal extramarital affair illustrates how women are disproportionately situated at the centre of shaming and blaming. When mentioned, the man is excused in the narrative of infidelity. Both discursive acts reinforce understandings and stereotypes of gender that reproduce gender discrimination.

Moreover, the expression of opinions in the excerpts illustrate that the sexist epithet pelakor is both a matter of individual and social opinion. For many Indonesians, an extramarital affair is a social and public problem in which the boundaries of private matters appear to be non-existent. This underscores that there is a close link between individual views and socially oppressive discourse (Räthzel, 1997).

We also see that the surveillance of women is still strong and prevalent even in social media (cf. Bennett, 2005; Davies, 2015). Indeed, social media amplify and extend it even more broadly across geographical and conventional boundaries, communities, and relations. Instagram has trespassed these barriers, enabling many unacquainted individuals to stigmatize women collectively. In this way, social media sites like Instagram have more power than face-to-face communication to disseminate sexist terms and latent ideologies robustly, bolstering misogynistic attitudes. For this reason, Instagram is a valuable domain for sociolinguistic research, in that many grassroots users are collaboratively, organically, and frequently languaging there.

Many Indonesians still have a long way to go to overcome gender disparity and an androcentric viewpoint. In the case of pelakor, an androcentric neologism, we can either resist, challenge, or give alternatives, such as by speaking up through collective activism or by assiduously educating others to abandon this sexist stigma altogether both in our offline and online interactions.

Given the collective nature of Indonesianness, it will be important to learn how Indonesian netizens utilize Instagram in communicating quotidian issues in their daily digital lives. Future studies should also investigate how social media are used to build digital rapport in which Indonesian netizens establish a virtual community to support other woman and/or to collectively shame other women.


I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful feedback on this article. My gratitude also goes out to Prof. Katrina Daly Thompson of UW-Madison and Prof. Allan Bell, professor emeritus at AUT, for their constructive feedback on an earlier draft of the article, and to Prof. Susan Herring for her detailed and attentive editorial hand. 


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Biographical Note

Nelly Martin-Anatias [nelly.martin@aut.ac.nz] is a researcher at the Auckland University of Technology Indonesia Centre (AUTIC) and teaches in the School of Language and Culture, Auckland University of Technology (AUT). Her research focuses on language and identity, language and gender, and code-switching in the media, among others.


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