New Indonesian First Lady Iriana: 'I want to be myself'

Mr Joko Widodo together with his wife Iriana Widodo pray during an open house reception for hundreds of Solo city residents at Solo city hall in Central Java province on July 30, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Mr Joko Widodo together with his wife Iriana Widodo pray during an open house reception for hundreds of Solo city residents at Solo city hall in Central Java province on July 30, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - There was something a tad different about Indonesian First Lady Iriana, 51, when she welcomed guests at the Jakarta governor's residence in Menteng, Central Jakarta, on Sunday. Wearing turquoise kebaya and kain (long cloth) batik, she admitted that she had just got a new shoulder-length hair-cut.

"Yes I did (have my hair-cut). My hair kept falling," she told a group of journalists invited to the residence.

Other than getting her haircut, Ms Iriana said she wasn't undergoing any special preparations for today, the day her husband Joko "Jokowi" Widodo is sworn in as the country's seventh president.

"There's nothing special. Pak Joko will wear suits, the children will wear batik and I will wear traditional Javanese attire. Shoes? I'll just wear what's available," she said, adding that she did not have a fashion stylist.

Ms Iriana, who got to know Mr Joko through his little sister and married him in 1986, said the thought of becoming First Lady had never occurred to her.

"I've been with him since he was a carpenter, then he became a mayor, governor and now president. But I never thought he would make it this far," she said.

Before entering politics, Mr Joko was a furniture businessman.

During the 28 years of their marriage, Ms Iriana, a graduate of an economics school, acknowledged the couple had gone through the bittersweet experiences of life together.

In an interview with The Jakarta Post last year, Mr Joko's mother Sujiatmi recalled her son's struggling years as a rookie entrepreneur, despite his being born into a furniture business family.

Ms Sujiatmi cited how Mr Joko was deceived by a buyer at the outset and lost all of the capital he had, and that was not the only time he suffered from significant losses.

"We fell, but we got up again because we must endure," Ms Iriana replied when asked what had kept the couple together.

But "romantic" is not how Ms Iriana would describe her husband.

"He's not romantic at all. We never even celebrate birthdays. But we've been together for years. We don't need anything like that. It's too cheesy," she said, with a chuckle.

Although not a romantic couple, many people, including journalists who often see them together, would describe them as an easy and warm couple.

While Mr Joko is affable as a high-profile official, a lively Ms Iriana has complemented her husband very well - at times even teasing him without hesitation in front of journalists who regularly covered Mr Joko's activities. Ms Iriana breaks into laughter easily and Mr Joko once said the couple often jest with one another.

In an interview, Mr Joko was asked what had made him fall in love with Ms Iriana, his first and only girlfriend. "Because she was such a country girl," he said, provoking Ms Iriana jokingly to poke him and deny the charge.

Meanwhile, Ms Iriana said she accepted Mr Joko's proposal because, "he was smart and worked hard".

When her husband was declared president-elect, Ms Iriana told her youngest son Kaesang Pangarep, "son, your dad is now the president," and she could not hide her pride in her husband when asked about how she handled the fact.

"People don't trust such a big responsibility to just anyone. This is a mandate that he has to live up to and I am ready to support him," she said, adding that she did not have any particular expectations of her husband.

"I believe in him," she said.

As First Lady, Ms Iriana is almost the opposite of her predecessor Ani Yudhoyono, the matriarch of the Yudhoyono family.

A quintessential Javanese woman, Ms Iriana has always stood by her husband as a loyal and attentive wife who puts her husband before herself.

"Ask for Bapak's approval first," is her standard response whenever reporters ask for anything from her, including interview sessions. She never left Mr Joko's side in every crucial moment throughout the presidential election and campaign, patiently waiting at the back of the venue or in the car while her husband spoke to supporters. The President once said his family's presence always boosted his spirit.

During the years of their marriage, Ms Iriana - who has divided her time between her hometown of Surakarta, Central Java, and Jakarta, over the past two years - said she had always catered to Jokowi's daily needs.

"I prepare his outfit every day. During the week, I prepare three shirts or batiks in the morning so he just has to pick the one he wants to wear," she said, claiming that her husband was a simple man.

"Bapak eats whatever I prepare. As long as there's tempeh and vegetables, he'll like it. Jamu [a herbal drink] is also a must every morning and afternoon," she said.

Simplicity is probably the new First Family's philosophy in daily life, reiterated Ms Iriana, who is fondly known as Ibu Ana.

"As you've seen, Pak Jokowi is very simple so I adapt to his style... I don't want to make a big deal about things like fashion. I just wear what's comfortable. If I see something nice at a reasonable price, I'll buy it. I don't want to keep thinking about fashion and ignore my duties," she said.

Speaking of duties, Ms Iriana declined to elaborate on the details of her plan once she enters the State Palace.

"(As the First Lady) of course I will have a programme but I can't unveil it right now. I am worried that I might say 'A' today but 'B' is what happens. Just wait and see," said Ms Iriana, who during the interview occasionally used colloquial Javanese words in a relaxed manner.

While Ms Ani was known for her fondness for photography and gardening, Ms Iriana has yet to decide what she will do in her spare time.

"I'll take a selfie and let you know later," she said jokingly.

Also in contrast with Ms Ani, who is an avid user of social media site Instagram, the new First Lady is shy of the media, mainstream or social. She does not have her own personal Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account.

In a more serious vein, Ms Iriana said she basically would not change anything. "I'll just be myself. I have never compared previous first ladies -every first lady has her own characteristics. But I plan to just be myself."

When Mr Joko was Solo's mayor, the residents knew Ms Iriana as a humble person, just like her husband. She would visit the people in traditional markets or neighborhoods and, unlike other officials' wives, was rarely seen wearing expensive handbags or heavy makeup.

After years of being the wife of a high-profile public official, Iriana admitted a lot of things had changed and she had had to learn to cope.

"I have a lot of best friends in Solo whom I miss, but it's different now. There's so little time, but I understand my duties," she said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.