What Women Want

JAKARTA – In the last decade, this sprawling archipelago has seen a woman sit as president and several important national portfolios held by women. One of the main architects of its most recent – and much lauded – campaign against corruption was also a woman. Yet many Indonesian women say they still have a long way to go in their fight for their rights.

In many ways, they echo their counterparts across Southeast Asia, where women are often described as the light of the family but are nevertheless subjected to all sorts of abuse. For instance, in many Southeast Asian households, the face of hunger is female because those who get to eat first are usually the male members of the family. Outside of the home, women and girls outnumber men and boys among victims of human trafficking. And in the workplace, women receive wages that are typically less than those of their male colleagues.

It’s a situation that has not gone unnoticed within ASEAN, which has had a committee focusing on women’s concerns for years. This April, ASEAN went one step further by establishing the Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC), which among other things will set regional standards in the implementation of women and children’s rights as part of the group’s drive to establish a “community”. Yet, as Indonesia’s experience so far with women’s rights shows, translating policies into reality is easier said than done.

About seven years ago, Indonesia thought it would help improve its women’s lot if it were to pass a law that would ensure that women would make up at least 30 percent of the candidates for lower house seats. (According to the United Nations Development Programme or UNDP, this percentage is “considered the critical mass required for women to participate meaningfully in politics”.)

That law was passed, and then subsequently replaced in 2008 by another that not only retained such a stipulation, but also compelled political parties to provide proof that they were following this rule. Women, though, continue to struggle to land seats in parliament despite the quota. This year, women are finally occupying 18 percent of the legislative seats – their biggest share so far. But among ASEAN states, that showing betters only that of Thailand, which has just 13.3 percent of its current parliament made up of women, and Malaysia, which has a paltry 9.9 percent.

Obviously, women’s rights advocates here and elsewhere in Indonesia aren’t about to start taking it easy just yet. “Nowadays, when we talk about percentage, we are happy,” says Yuda Kusumaningsih of the Women’s Movement in Politics. “But the quality is frightening for us.”

She explains that even with the “women’s quota in politics… women cannot influence political parties because they are placed only as a member of specific division for women, not a secretary or deputy secretary or chairperson”. To Yuda, this makes the situation “very poor”.

Coming up short

In truth, some observers have also pointed out that the female legislators have not necessarily turned out to be champions of the rights of women, who make up about half of Indonesia’s more than 240 million people. Activists themselves acknowledge that some women may be coming into parliament with a different agenda; at the same time, some of them simply may not be that aware of the need to push for their own rights as women.

Even Megawati Soekarnoputri, who became Indonesia’s first female president in 2001, turned out to be a disappointment for advocates of women’s rights. The daughter of the country’s first president, Soekarno, Megawati had been touted to become Indonesia’s chief executive in 1999. At the last minute, however, there was some manoevreing among the then predominantly old-hand politicians in parliament who balked at the idea of having a woman at the top. She thus had to spend some time as vice president. Yet even then, women’s rights advocates say Megawati’s disinterest in their concerns was already apparent, at one point showing a cold attitude to a proposal to have a women’s and human-rights desk under her office. It was, say activists, a stance that would not change even after she was finally able to become president.

But women’s rights advocates have yet to let up in their efforts to be heard – which is not that surprising since several scholars attribute Indonesia’s return to democracy partly to women themselves. In a recent paper published in the Journal of Indonesian Social Sciences and Humanities, academics Sharyn Graham Davies and Nurul Ilmi Idrus observe that the “environment of open protest” that marked the beginning of the end of Soeharto’s rule in the late 1990s “was supported in no small part by women” who felt they could no longer feed and look after their families as they battled with rising prices.

This was during the 1997 Asian financial crisis that led to many food staples shrinking in volume on tables across the region, if not disappearing altogether. The situation left many Indonesian women in utter frustration; after all, the Soeharto regime had clearly defined women as wives and mothers before anything else. Write Davies and Idrus: “Any failure of a woman to feed her family meant that she was an inadequate wife and mother. A consequence of this strong model of womanhood was that when rice prices rose and women found it increasingly difficult to feed their families, they felt justified in protesting.”

“The Indonesian model of womanhood was created to ensure that women did not disrupt national stability,” the academics continue, “yet ironically this model became the justification for protest.”

No wonder then that women have been particularly vocal about the need for reforms, including those regarding women’s concerns, in the post-Soeharto era. Referring to the moves to get more women into parliament, Yuda says, “We can’t ask or beg (to realise our dream). Women should fight for that. I and my organisation are ready to fight.”

Which is just as well since just this April, Mariana Amiruddin of the women’s rights magazine Jurnal Perempuan told the English-language Jakarta Globe that nationwide, there were more than 150 laws that were “discriminatory”. Of this number, she said, 64 violated women’s freedom of expression and right to gainful employment.

These have almost trumped significant pieces of gender legislation such as those on domestic violence and trafficking. Besides, as Mariana told the Globe, the existing gender laws had yet to make an impact since “many people do not even understand the definition of gender and women’s empowerment”.

A united campaign

And so the push goes on for more “enlightened” women to be elected into parliament, along with awareness campaigns to get the rest of the public up to speed regarding women’s rights and concerns. A leader from one of Indonesia’s major moderate Muslim organisations even says that these efforts are “an advocacy among the people – not only religious (groups), but also NGOs, institutions, and universities as well”.

Yet even Davies and Idris admit in their paper that the Soeharto-regime female ideal persists to this day, and cite it among the obstacles to getting more votes for women vying to be legislators. Activists agree, with one telling this writer, “The cultural challenge is (that) people believe men are leaders and women are followers. That culture (makes it hard) for women to enter politics despite the guarantees in law.” Indeed, the UNDP has taken note that although 45.4 percent of Indonesian civil service are female, “only nine percent of those working in the first echelon are women”.

Davies and Idrus also point out that politics is seen as “dirty” and “rough” and therefore unsuitable for women. Such views in turn probably contribute to a third obstacle cited by the two scholars for women aiming for the legislature: the presumption of political parties that the quota for women imposed on them by law is just a passing trend that they need not take that seriously. Thus, say Davis and Idrus, “women are being nominated for electorates they are unlikely to win”. And when they do get elected, “they are mostly given peripheral positions with little power or input to decision-making”.

The subordinate role forced on women means less access to money as well, which may be why Davies and Idrus list financial considerations as among the hindrances to having more females in the Indonesian parliament. In addition, while they say Islam has not become a major barrier for women entering politics in this country – which has the biggest Muslim population in the world – they concede that there is still an ongoing debate regarding the acceptability of having Muslim women in power roles.

Too, they note a positive development in the last few years that has somehow become a drawback for women candidates for parliament. According to Davies and Idrus, Indonesians have become “increasingly sceptical of perceived political nepotism” that helped put the likes of Megawati into power, and now may no longer be casting votes based on their familiarity with the candidate’s clan (although Megawati’s daughter made it to parliament last year, along with the wives and daughters of other politicians).

Presumably, the voting public has been underwhelmed by the performance of those who would not have gotten a foot in the door had they not possessed a famous family name. Unfortunately, Davies and Idrus do not say if this has affected the prospects as well of male candidates for public office who really have nothing going for them but their powerful relatives, or if it is something reserved only for female political aspirants.

Females at the frontline 

For all these, Indonesia’s political landscape has not been wanting of skilled and competent women. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is now on his second term, has been particularly astute in recruiting highly talented women for key Cabinet posts, among them Dr. Siti Fadillah Supari, who served as health minister from 2004 to 2009, and Dr. Meutia Hatta Swasono, who was state minister for the empowerment of women during the same period.

Dr. Sri Mulyani Indrawati and Dr. Marie Elka Pangestu were also part of both the first and second Yudhoyono Cabinets. Indrawati was national development planning minister early in the first round, before taking on the finance portfolio in 2005 and then into Yudhoyono’s second term. Pangestu, meanwhile, has held the position of trade minister during both terms. Other women in the current Yudhoyono Cabinet include Dr. Armida Alisjabahna (national development planning minister), Dr. Endang Sedyaningsih (health minister), and Linda Agum Gumelar (women’s empowerment minister).

Indrawati, however, would emerge as the star performer not only among the women officials but also out of the entire Cabinet. As finance minister, she was credited with the stellar performance of the Indonesian economy in the midst of the global financial crisis – not in the least because of the reforms she engineered within the finance ministry, and specifically for the country’s corruption-ridden tax and customs offices.

To her admirers’ dismay, though, Indrawati quit this May and accepted a position as managing director at the World Bank. Media reports attribute her resignation to growing tensions with an influential businessman who also happens to chair the Golkar party, which is a junior partner in the ruling coalition. At a forum on public policy and ethics that was held shortly after her resignation was announced, Indrawati took a swipe at what she said was the continued domination in the current government of male politicos from the Soeharto era.

She quipped, “There are those who have described it as a cartel, but I prefer to see it as a marriage – a same-sex marriage.”


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