In Indonesia, women's rights still need a boost

JAKARTA - A recent TV debate between two women politicians on women's representation in parliament shows how much progress women in Indonesia have made since a century ago when Javanese noblewoman Raden Ajeng - also known as Kartini - became a pioneer in women's emancipation.

One of the two politicians, from the United Development Party, argued that her party gives more space to women as it has more female candidates for next year's general election, who push for issues on women's rights.

The retort from the other politician, from Hanura party, was provocative - her party is fielding fewer female candidates but they push beyond women's issues, she says, adding that female politicians should not be myopic and toe the gender line.

While there is some way to go for women to achieve anything close to equality to men in various sectors of Indonesian society, the female voice is increasingly being heard, and that voice is championing not just women's causes.

One arena in which women are making headway is politics, where the proportion of women legislators has climbed from 11 per cent in 2004 to 18 per cent in 2009.

Ideally, this should hit 30 per cent, says the government, which has been progressive in imposing a requirement for all political parties to submit three female names out of 10 candidates for the 2014 elections.

In business, particularly in the boardroom, Indonesian women are doing better than their counterparts in Asia, says a study by the National University of Singapore's Business School, released last December.

Some 11.6 per cent of boardroom seats in Indonesia are held by women, compared to those in Hong Kong at 10.3 per cent, China at 8.5 per cent, Malaysia at 7.3 per cent and Singapore also at 7.3 per cent.

Said Ms Millie Stephanie, CEO of the Mobiliari Group that publishes high society magazines like the Indonesia Tatler: "Economics is driving the change. It is not surprising to see women gaining more power and have more influence at work." She added that the old social stigma of women in leadership positions is also being eroded.

Indonesia has had several women in prominent positions. Among them are Ms Karen Agustiawan, chief of state-owned oil and gas company Pertamina, and economist Sri Mulyani, managing director of the World Bank. The country of 240 million has also been led by a woman president, Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri, in 2001-2004.

However, women's rights activists say there is a huge gap in women's rights between the cities and the desas (villages).

"Those in big cities worry over being career women and juggling family duties but the ones in villages are hit hard by discrimination - they lack access to good medical facilities or are told they don't need high education because they will spend more time in the kitchen," said psychologist Ms Rosdiana Setyaningrum.

"Patriarchal views are still very strong" in the villages and still exist to a large extent in the cities, she told The Straits Times.

This mindset was a stumbling block for political parties trying to fulfill their 30 per cent quota of women candidates for legislative elections, as some women in the smaller cities withdrew their participation after objections from their husbands. They have pleaded for more time to submit their candidates' lists for verification by the elections committee.

Socially, women have gained little ground, being still treated as sex objects. Mr Aceng Fikri, a former district leader in Garut, West Java, divorced a 17-year-old four days after their secret marriage, via a text message on grounds that she was not a virgin on the day they wed.

Discrimination against women is even written into law by local governments in the less developed regions of the country.

In Aceh, a district chief banned women from straddling on motorcycles, saying this would encourage improper behaviour.

Komnas Perempuan, or the National Commission on Violence Against Women, recorded 282 by-laws last year that discriminate against women, including one prohibiting women from going out late at night.

Ms Yuniyanti Chuzaifah, who leads the commission, said: "These are beyond irrational (laws). It is a reflection of the narrow-mindedness of some leaders."

But women are not taking things lying down.

When then governor of Jakarta Fauzi Bowo in Sept 2011 told women not to wear short skirts to avoid getting raped on public transport, hundreds of women donned short skirts to protest against his remarks at the capital's iconic Hotel Indonesia traffic circle.

Attitudes of political leaders like Mr Bowo's are reasons why women's activists say one way to change society's chauvinistic view of women is to have more females in key government positions and in parliament.

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