Indonesian Women Marginalized at the Polls Too


A crowd of women voters cheer the arrival of Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) chairwoman Megawati Sukarnoputri on Oct. 22, 2013. (JG Photo/Fajrin Raharjo)
A crowd of women voters cheer the arrival of Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) chairwoman Megawati Sukarnoputri on Oct. 22, 2013. (JG Photo/Fajrin Raharjo)

Jakarta. “Men are from Mars and women are from Venus” may have been the title of a best-selling book, but it also emphasizes how women have always been depicted differently to men. It also happens in politics. Physical and psychological differences aside, women are indeed a special group in politics, women’s rights activists say.

“In democracy, each group has its own specific needs and that goes for women,” says Eva Kusuma Sundari, a legislator from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). “In our society, women are marginalized and somehow discriminated. So yes, they do have specific needs and specific interests.”

“Women need to be a special segment [in elections] in the sense that they have limitations compared to their male counterparts,” says Titi Anggraini, a political expert from Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem). “They have limited access to information [compared to men in general].”

Titi claims that despite being large in number, women voters are more prone to being “directed” on who to vote for according to the wishes of the dominant figures in their family or society — husband, father, religious leader or community chief — since the males are seen as the “more rational ones.”

Looking back to previous elections, she says, it is clear that women, as a group, have been treated as an emotional — not rational — voting bloc.

Back in 2004, for instance, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono tried to attract women voters by depicting himself as a handsome and gallant person by burnishing his “manly military background,” Titi says. The stunt might seem silly, but it worked, and Yudhoyono went on to win the presidency, twice.

Titi blames the “insufficient access to information” that women have, not the gender stereotype.

“It’s because of the lack of information that women have,” she says. “They have been conditioned to follow the male figure’s choice. [But even when they can choose freely] they still don’t have the information needed. They are treated as if they don’t need to know [the candidates’] vision and goals, which are needed when making a rational choice. That’s why they turn to emotional reasons when deciding who to vote for.”

Eva echoes the same concern. She says that women might be seen as incapable of choosing a leader, but once they are informed about their needs, they can make a stand and have their own voice.

“It’s not about the gender, it’s about citizenship and their lack of political education,” she argues. “They are not seen as targets of political education. Take the case of military wives. Nobody educates them about politics, and when the election comes, they just follow what their husband’s commanders say.”

For now, according to Titi, the most urgent thing to do is to inform and educate women, starting from changing their mind-set.

“They need to have the independence to choose without any influence from their male relatives, and they have to realize that they also can take part in changing their own and this nation’s condition,” she says.

There have long been efforts by government bodies and nongovernmental organizations to educate women on politics.

The local chapter of the General Elections Commission (KPU) in Central Lampung district, Lampung province, for instance, has been distributing information to the public about the upcoming elections since September last year. The module covers basic information on the elections, including how to choose competent candidates. The 28-page module also discusses how women should be independent voters and how women have influenced the nation’s development condition in the past.

The National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) has raised concerns about the need for women to make an informed choice at the ballot box, and called for women to choose tolerant and capable leaders in the April 9 legislative election. The commission is also working with NGOs to urge voters to be rational and calling on candidates to sign a political contract with them.

However, political parties seem to be keeping their distance from this issue, with none of the 12 parties taking part in the polls stating any intention of providing women voters with a political education. Even when they do hold a workshop or seminar, the information session is usually a cover-up for a campaign activity.

An incumbent legislator from the National Awakening Party (PKB), an Islamist party, earlier this month held an information session for women in Yogyakarta. He claimed he wanted to inform them about the importance of their votes and choosing the right people to govern the country. But the session included the distribution of food packages, making it unclear whether it was a campaign or solely a public service session.

The House of Representatives deliberates women’s issues through House Commission VIII, which also oversees religious affairs and social welfare. In the past five years, however, the commission has failed to come up with any significant programs to create better awareness among women of the democratic process.

“The effort to produce legislation [relevant to women issues] by the House hasn’t been optimal,” Titi says.

“This includes laws on gender equality and women’s role in politics. Such issues haven’t received enough attention. First of all, it’s because of male domination [in the House], and second, it’s because of the background of the members — not many of them are competent.”

In numbers, women are a minority in the House. The current batch of 101 female legislators accounts for just 18 percent of the 560-seat House. Only 12 of the 45 legislators on Commission VIII is a woman. By comparison, World Bank data show that in neighboring Malaysia, women made up just 10 percent of the total number of legislators, while Rwanda led the way with 64 percent at the end of 2013.

For the ongoing campaign period, though, women are still everywhere to be seen, thanks to the 30 percent quota mandated for each party.

In approaching women voters, women candidates seem to have several advantages, according to Titi. “It’s easier for women candidates to identify with women voters because they can relate to each other and put a personal touch on their proposed solutions,” she says.

However, it doesn’t have to be women. “What really matters is whether they’re on the women’s side, even though it’s relatively easier to talk with women candidates. But this requires people to know who the candidates are,” Titi says.

Eva says she believes gender and looks should not be a consideration in choosing a leader. A member of House Commission III, which oversees legal affairs, she says she fought for women’s and children’s issues when she first ran for office.

“I don’t ask people to choose me because I’m a woman, or because I’m pretty or solely because I’m from the PDI-P,” she says, referring to her party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle.

“It’s about the quality, my political agenda, not primordial values. That’s what we need to change here. Politicians sometimes only sell their image, not the issues. Women voters need to disregard any gender bias, that’s not important. Don’t choose candidates who don’t have any policies.”

For Fike Kireina, 21, a recent university graduate, the question of gender is not a factor when it comes to voting.

“Just because I’m a woman that doesn’t mean I’m going to vote for a woman. I’ve never considered gender [when choosing a candidate], it’s about the capability. If the men are better, I’ll choose them,” she says.

She also believes women are wiser than they used to be in choosing leaders.

“I admit women tend to choose popular people in elections, like actors,” Fike says. “But I think now women are more educated, they have stopped choosing people based on their looks. [Indonesian] women in general are getting wiser, they’ve learned their lesson from those they previously [voted for].”

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