Wife of Indonesia’s Ambassador to Iran Tells Us a Story about Barack Obama’s Mother and Rituals of Her People

Wife of Indonesia’s Ambassador to Iran Tells Us a Story about Barack Obama’s Mother and Rituals of Her People

The most populated Muslim country, Indonesia has always been proud of the religious tolerance it owned in a way that its constitution guarantees religious freedom. Indonesia possesses the largest economy in South East Asia and is a diverse country in terms of ethnic rituals and traditions. Indonesian people are warm and hospitable and communicating with them is as kind and easy as delivering a friendly smile, and the wife of Indonesia’s ambassador to Iran is not an exception, either. She has carried out years of voluntary work when Stanley Ann Dunham, Barack Obama’s mother, was a friend and close colleague of hers. Back then, Obama’s mother had lost her Kenyan husband and that brought her to Indonesia to research more about the role of women in the home appliance industries. She later focalized her studies in Java and blacksmithing in Indonesia. Dunham was also employed by the Ford Foundation in Jakarta and was an adviser to the Asian Development Bank in Pakistan. Dunham passed away on November 7, 1995 and in one of his interviews, Barack Obama named his mother as the strongest influence in forming his character. Given the cooperation the ambassador’s wife had with Mrs. Dunham and also the variegated ethnic traditions in Indonesia, we held an interview with Mrs. Erly Rusdillah which comes as follows.

AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with

Mrs. Erly Rusdillah, the Wife of Indonesia’s Ambassador to Iran


What is your name? When is your birthday?

Erly Rusdillah. January 16, 1958. Jakarta.

Where did you go to school? What was your father?

My father was from Sumatra, my mother also. She works in a bank, the Dutch Colonial Bank, you know. I went to Indonesian University in Jakarta and my major was sociology.

How many brothers and sisters do you have? What is your rank of birth?

I’m the second child, and I have two sisters and two brothers.

Why were you interested in sociology?

You study about human and community. Because human beings are dynamic and it is interesting to study about them, that’s why I chose sociology.

Did you finish your studies at B.A. or M.A.?

It’s different, you know. We study for 5 years and it is something between bachelor’s and master’s.

 What was your thesis?

It is about poverty in the suburban areas of Jakarta, because many Jakarta engineers sold their lands to the people who came to Jakarta, so, slowly they filled the place, and you know, the education is low. So my thesis was about the suburbs of Jakarta.

In your studies, you addressed the suburban areas and the social gaps around Jakarta. How big is the gap between various Indonesian social walks?

I don’t know how big the gap is. But you can see there is a gap between poor people and in the middle. You can see that all over the world. You may not have middle class in Tehran, you only have poor and rich.

Is that so in Indonesia, too?

No. We do have middle class in Indonesia. Maybe in Tehran, you don’t see many poor people, but it means they can afford the basic needs. But there are other who are not too poor nor too rich.

Which social class did you belong to?

I’d say middle class. In terms of social position, maybe we were high, but in terms of economic aspects, we weren’t, because we were not businessmen. My father was working in a bank, so we were upper medium. They could afford all we wanted.

What did your father want you to do?

It was up to me. He didn’t boost me to be a doctor or anything.

What about other Indonesian women? Can they attend whichever university they choose? Do they take to study or marry someone?

They are free. They could do whatever they wanted, so they would study. We wouldn’t pay too much for education, and so we could go to state-fund universities.

What about girls? Did they tend to study or get married?

They do want to study.

How different was continuing your studies back in your time from now?

Now, the opportunities are the same, but it has become more expensive than then. Students now prefer to study abroad, because it is expensive to study at Indonesian universities, because of too much tuition fees. All in all, they would rather go to university than get married.

So you are saying that continuing with one’s education has become more expensive.

Yes, universities are becoming like companies getting to expensive. If you have the money, you can pay for it, but if you pass the exam, then the costs will be lower.

How does the middle class deal with its needs in Indonesia? Can a middle class family get a house of its own?

Regarding the fluctuation in the main body of the country’s economy, I should say that hasn’t occurred only in Indonesia, but all over the world. I think there is no balance between the salaries and the needs in Indonesia. Everything is getting more expensive, but the salary is still low. In Iran, you may be able to provide for your basic needs using your salary, which is rational. But in Indonesia, it is not so. The prices are higher while compared to Tehran. For example, in Tehran, you have to pay only 2 or 3 thousand tomans to get a liter of milk, while it costs you at least $2 in Jakarta. So you see, the basic needs are pricier in Jakarta, and yet, the salary is lower than that in Iran.

So tell us about your romantic life. How did you meet Mr. Ambassador? How did you get married?

We studied at the same university in the same year, and that is where I met him. There was this thing called the student tour, and so, we went together to another city to visit a university. On the day when the tour was to start, we were going to the bus, and I arrived late, and there was only seat left. I took it and sat next to him, but didn’t pay any attention to him. Because we were different. When attending a general lecture in the big hall, I was on the right side and he was on the left side. Right side defined the upper middle class students and left side indicated those of a higher grade. He talked about his hobbies and the books he read, and so did I, and we became friends. He lent me some books and I gave him some in return. Later, he came to our house, and because I cared much about one of my friend’s company, I told my mother to tell him I wasn’t home. Because I didn’t want to be engaged to anyone, and after I stood up to him, he stopped coming over to our house. In the second year of university, we had to choose our majors, and mine was sociology, so that meant we weren’t going to see each other any longer, but only in the library. After the fourth year, I left my group and because we were alone, I told my friend, we don’t have any boyfriend as we are always together. Besides, the boys in our group were looking to get younger ones on their side. Then, I met my husband in the library, we talked again, and he came to our house.

I wonder to know how the marital rituals are in Indonesia. In your time, if someone wanted to ask a girl to marry them, how would they do it? Did they have to come and talk directly to you, or what?

The boys had to come to our houses, and we made dates. There was no restriction that the family should come too. He would come to our house, we would hang out, and so on. After we agreed, then comes the proposal.

You said your husband first came to see your mother. Why was that? Why didn’t he set to see your father before?

Because he used to come over in the afternoon, 4 o’clock, 5 o’clock and my father was at work, and he could only visit my mom. Even the first time he came over, it wasn’t because he wanted to meet my parents, but he wanted to see me, and I wasn’t home therefore he met my parents. So he left and came back another time.

After four years that we agreed to accept each other, he came to our house once a week, twice a week, or so, and we went on dates. We went to movies, theaters, bars, etc.

When did he finally propose you?

After 2 and a half years. During all those four years, we didn’t see each other much often.

Why did it take so long?

Because we hadn’t spent as much time as we had to back during those past 4 years, and he wanted to finish his studies. And I had not condition for him. I only told him that we’d get married and work along each other, and this way, we could build a life of ours.

Did you work back then?

Yes, I had a part-time job in an NGO, in the Women’s Trade Union, which was an NGO for community development. I worked in R&D sector, and some informal sectors, which are numerous in Indonesia. We received a proposal to do a research in five cities, first in Jakarta, and I was the project officer. The project manager was the mother of President Obama.

What was she doing there?

She ran the Ford Foundation.

So was the project American?

No, no. In Indonesia, we have many NGOs, and for them to get a project done, funds should be dedicated. Obama’s mother was married to an Indonesian man in her second marriage from which she also had a daughter. So, President Obama’s stepfather is Indonesian.

How long did you work with her?

A long time. From 1980-81 until 1988 maybe. We went to different factories, and back then, we had a group of feminists. Every week we got together in her house along with some other feminist members.

Do you have any pictures of her?

I don’t know. Maybe in my house in Jakarta. The last time I met her was in New York in 1990, because my husband was on a mission there. She had established a cooperative for women in Bangladesh.

When you met her in 1990, her son had become a senator, right?

I don’t know. I only knew his mother and his sister.

Did she ever talk to you about her son?

She only told us that Obama’s father was killed because of politics in the US, and their son was living with his grandma in Hawaii.

So Obama’s father was killed because of political reasons.

Yes, in Africa, according to Obamas’ mother.

Do you have any special memory from her?

She was an introvert person and had to take care of two children. But she was very much professional.

Did Obama ever come to visit her mom?

Yes, I met him twice wearing shorts. He was called “Bari”.

How was the young Barack Obama?

He was lovely and intimate to his stepsister.

Did he help you in the NGO?

No, because I was his stepfather’s friend, and his mother’s colleague. He was a high school student, and so, no.

How were your marriage rituals going? For example, the wife of Tunisia’s ambassador told me for every marriage, they have to celebrate 3 days and nights changing their dresses every day, while in Mexico, it only takes one day. How is it in Indonesia?

After we agree, our parents meet and talk about everything, the time of marriage, the place of it, etc.

Where do you celebrate marriages? Do you go to a temple or any other specific place?

It’s just like Iran. We gather together and hold a big celebration with everyone wearing a unique local dress.

How are the rituals?

After our parents meet, they set the date, we do everything. There is this ritual called “Aqad” with our families coming giving gifts, like dresses, jewelry, depending on the family. We ask for nothing, and they do it themselves.

I heard in Indonesia, the bride colors her teeth black on the wedding day, is that right?

No, not at all.

I also heard that during the ceremony, Indonesian brides wash the feet of the groom to state their faithfulness and ever-lastingness. What about that?

It is a tradition and we do it.

Do you have any other tradition in different city?

Actually it is varies between places. For example, before the wedding night, the bride holds a separate celebration and the groom takes a shower. I can’t say for sure. Before Aqad, we try to get ourselves right by taking a shower, polish our nails.

I heard before coming to the bride’s house, the groom should not set his feet on the ground, is it so?

No, I haven’t heard that. When the groom comes, we welcome him by asking him to sit on a carpet. And if the marriage takes place in a mosque, people can see the carpet since the beginning.

Maybe those traditions relate more to villages and rural areas. I heard before the marriage and when it is agreed upon, the bride’s father cleanses her with water.

Yes, that’s the shower I mentioned that the bride takes before her wedding. Both groom and bride do this.

 Do they pour water with a spoon or is it a usual shower?

It’s a shower in a special place. They prepare a place with decoration and then, we wear a special dress and someone pours the water. It happens in the house.

Is there any other wedding ritual you might want us to know?

At the wedding night and after Aqad, we have reception, which can be also dealt with the next day. But nowadays, there is no next day, and they do it right at that night so they would be more comfortable later.

There is a tradition in Iran that the bride should take every home appliances to her house once she gets married.

If both sides agree, then we can do it. But that doesn’t mean the bride has to do it.

In India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, the groom’s family should pay dowry. Do you have anything like that in Indonesia?

Not in particular. In Indonesia that is up to customization. If they want to give dowry, they can do it, but no force.

How long did you stay in Jakarta after you got married?

4 years.

Where did you first go after that?

New York.

Had you been there before?

No, I hadn’t.

How did you see New York’s society once you moved out of JFK Airport?

Before I got there, there was an issue of the Time Magazine in which I read the condition wasn’t going to be good. It was 1990, and it really was like that. Walking in Manhattan was scary for us. But after a year, I got used to it. In New York, you can get anything, cheap and expensive, galleries, museum, everything.

What is your best memory from then?

You know in New York, there are famous paintings from Picasso and other painters and my husband and I went to visit them. I also saw Barbara Streisand, some singers in Madison Square. I also had the chance to go to Kitaro’s concert in 1999. We also watched many plays in Broadway.

Didn’t you have any children while in New York?

Actually we had two, one in Jakarta and one in New York.

Was it hard to live there with two children?

No, I brought someone to help me. I went to Manhattan every day. I could walk 50 blocks and so I wanted to explore that neighborhood.

There are many Chinese in Manhattan. Didn’t they mistake you for one?

No, they asked where I was from. There are too many things to explore in New York. There was Little Italy and other places such as this.

Where did you go after New York?

To Geneva.

What was your husband’s position there?

He was the first secretary in the disarmament section.

And after that, you went to Moscow?

Yes, two times.

How was Moscow?

We only stayed 14 months, so it was very cold. In one year, we had 7 months of snow, we had barely 2 and a half months of sunshine. There was no parking lot then, for it was communism ruling all over the country. We had to park our cars in the yard and clean the snow from the shields in the morning. If they were really lazy, they cleaned the glass only, not all of it.

It’s interesting, because in Indonesia, it does not snow.

Well, of course I had seen snow in Geneva and New York, but there, it was awful, you get bored. It was minus 35, freezing. But there is the difference. When in Jakarta, the weather is hot, but in Moscow, it was freezing cold.

When did you get here?

It was 2012.

During your time here, where did you? Which parts of the country did you visit?

A lot of places. Many, many different places. My husband and I love travelling. Even when we were in Geneva and Moscow, every weekend we visited small villages, etc.

Imagine you want to describe Iran for an Indonesian. What would you tell them?

Iran is a four-season country; you have desert and forest. You have civilization, technology and natural resources. If you come to Europe, you’ll see their civilization is not as old as Iran’s. They started after Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution, so you can see their civilization is not as old as Iran’s. If you come to Iran, you get the cities, history, etc.

In Iran, a tourist doesn’t come to see simple tourism attraction, but the civilization. For example, if you go to Switzerland, you can only go skiing. In Iran, given the climate variety, you can find the same winter as that of Swiss.

You must have lots of memories during your time here. Tell us about them.

Here, I feel like at home. In Iran, for example, I bought halal meat, which made me really happy.

Besides, Iranian people are very much outgoing and we can be friends with them a lot. I can go shopping with them for a long time, but you cannot find it in Europe.

What is your Iranian favorite food?


Can you cook Iranian food?

No, not yet. Our chef here is pretty cool and I don’t need to worry about food. But when I move back to Jakarta, I absolutely have to start cooking my own food. But before that, I may spend some time on learning more about cooking Iranian food.

Although your husband is a diplomat, he is a professional photographer. Can you shoot some photos too?

No, I depend on him a lot. And when I take a picture it becomes very funny.

Which other city do you wish to visit?

I want to go to Kaloot, near Kerman. It has a lot of domes. I went to Tabriz 5 times, Shiraz 6 times, Yazd 2 times and Hamadan 2 times. I also like to visit Karbala. I have been to Mecca, Medina, etc. and before going back to Jakarta, I like to visit Karbala. I have been to many holy cities, but not Karbala. I saw all of them in the same year in 2006.

When were you last in Jakarta?

April, 2014.

Is there any Sharia Police in Jakarta?

No, not at all.

But it was on the news, it was said that the Sharia Police try to tell women to wear proper hijab and dress in Indonesia.

Maybe in Aceh, but not in Jakarta. Because it is an Islamic city.

Thank you for the time you ascribed to this interview. I wish you the best of time in Iran.

I, too, thank you for the interview.

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