Bracing for first female sultan

The Jakarta Post 8 May 2015

Yogyakarta Sultan Hamengkubuwono (HB) X appointed his eldest daughter, GKR Pembayun, crown princess with the new royal title of GKR Mangkubumi through a royal proclamation on May 5. This long-expected decision has stirred up a controversy in the province’s patriarchal Javanese society.

Unlike the neighboring Pakualaman principality, the sultanate of Yogyakarta has struggled to choose a successor to the current sultan, who is the first monogamous monarch of the line but does not have a son. His wife GKR Hemas has given him five daughters.

According to royal rules and precedents (paugeran), which are based on Islamic beliefs, the sultan must follow the right of primogeniture. When Sultan HB V passed away without any male heirs, his successor was his younger brother.

Therefore, according to jurisprudence, the throne should go to one of HB X’s 11 brothers from his father’s four wives.

Based on bloodline and position in the sultanate bureaucracy, KGPH Hadiwinoto is the most suitable candidate, not only because he has the highest royal title but also because he is the only sibling of the current sultan.

Long before he ascended to the throne, Sultan HB X had initiated reform inside the sultanate after his daughters reached maturity. Before HB X’s reign, the bureaucracy was men’s business, with only one women’s affairs office (kaputren).

During his tenure, HB X carefully placed his daughters as deputies of their uncles. When the uncles passed away, the sultan’s daughters took over the posts.

One of the most important jobs is KH Panitrapura, or sultanate state secretary, which is now held by the sultan’s second daughter GKR Condrokirono, who replaced GBPH Joyokusumo, the sultan’s youngest brother who died in 2013. HB X also created a new department to accommodate his daughters’ expertise, such as the 2012 establishment of the Tepas Tandha Yekti, which is responsible for IT and documentation. It is very clear that the sultan has prepared his daughters to lead the sultanate for a long time.

The order changed the basic foundations of the Yogyakarta sultanate.

GKR Mangkubumi has been particularly groomed by her mother Hemas, a member of the Regional Representatives Council. Hemas’ excellent political and social skills have been important in Pembayun’s promotion.

The new heir’s first test in politics came last year when Pembayun’s husband, Wironegoro, contested the national legislative elections. Even though he lost miserably, the couple learned a lot for future entry into national politics.

However, the sultan’s desire to promote GKR Mangkubumi as his successor faces abundant cultural, political and legal obstacles. Culturally, all sultans carry male symbols. The Yogyakarta sultan bears the title of Kalifatullah, or senior spiritual leader, which is associated with men.

In the mosque, the sultan has a special place between the imam and male followers.

He also holds the sacred kris dagger of Kandjeng Kiai Ageng Kopek inherited by Sultan HB I. The sultan has also been said to maintain relations with the mythical Queen of the South Sea.

In fact, there are hundreds of customary traditions that assume the maleness of the sultan.

Politically, support for a female sultan would be lower than for one of HB X’s brothers. Supporters of Yogyakarta’s special region want to preserve the long-held tradition of having a male sultan.

As a senior politician, HB X will immediately face legal hurdles. Law No. 13/2012 on Yogyakarta’s special status assumes that the throne, and hence the gubernatorial post, is held by a male sultan. Article 18 verse (1) point (m) says that a sultan should submit a resume that contains the name of his “wife” (not spouse) to fulfill the requirement to become governor.

During the formulation of a special bylaw on appointment of the governor a few months ago, HB X asked the provincial legislative council to remove the word “istri” (wife), but to no avail.

In March, he issued a sabdatama (decree) to open up the possibility of a female successor. Smarting from the failure of his first attempt, the sultan issued on April 30 a sabdaraja (royal proclamation) aiming to clear both legal and cultural barriers for a female sultan.

In the sabdaraja, he surrendered the title of Kalifatullah and perfected the sacred kris Kanjeng Kyai Ageng Kopek for sultan and kris Kandjeng Kyai Joko Piturun for crown prince.

The order changed the basic foundations of the Yogyakarta sultanate and all symbols of the male hereditary line of the sultan.

But only through amending the principles could he pave the way for his daughter to claim the throne, and consequently the governorship.

The sabdaraja marks the biggest change in the sultanate since it was founded in 1775. Since its inception, the sultanate has faced tremendous challenges and rebellions, including the epic Diponegoro War that began as a palace mutiny.

However, the sultanate has always survived, thanks in part to its preservation of its basic principles, especially related to the male bloodline. The unbroken bloodline has become the most important tool to maintain legitimacy, not only in Yogyakarta but also in other aristocracies in Indonesia.

Unsurprisingly, all 11 of Sultan HB X’s brothers have challenged his choice of heir, claiming the choice represents a violation of palace rules.

However, this could be a moment for the sultanate to carve out a new future, where male and female children have an equal claim to the throne. This also poses the biggest test for the people of Yogyakarta, who are known for their loyalty to the sultan.

Clearly, the city is enduring a rough time, but it will surely be able to overcome this controversy.