JAKARTA, Indonesia (WOMENSENEWS)–When a record 101 women won seats in Indonesia’s House of Representatives in the 2009 election, development groups said it was proof that the world’s largest Muslim nation was ready to back female politicians and a gender quota system that the country had recently rejected wasn’t in fact needed.
"The Indonesian experience shows that even when the affirmative action quota is removed, once public attention and awareness is generated around the issue, change in attitudes can successfully push the agenda forward," the United Nations Development Program said in a February 2010 report on gender equality.
Or maybe not. One year later, Hetifah Sjaifudian, a parliamentarian from the Golkar party, the vehicle of former autocratic President Suharto, says hold the applause. She says she is frustrated at being sidelined and sometimes ridiculed to the point of ineffectiveness.
"It’s like I’m playing a game of basketball. I’m no longer an observer. I’m one of the players. But the other team members never give me the ball," Sjaifudian said.
The soft-spoken politician says that after she was elected, the difficulties that lay ahead began to dawn on her in the form of navigating internal party power struggles without any formal solidarity bloc among female legislators.
Women are about 18 percent of Indonesia’s House of Representatives. The percentage is near the figure for the United States but still below the critical mass figure of 30 percent, at which point analysts say women can start exerting a group influence. Indonesia’s Constitutional Court scrapped a 2008 election law less than six months after it was passed that would have ensured that one third of the elected candidates were women.
Commission Appointments Problematic
Commission appointments were one of the first practical problems that female politicians faced. Each parliamentarian can choose two priority commissions, but assignments are made by a small group of mostly male party leaders.
As a result, Sjaifudian says most of the women sit on "soft" commissions dealing with social issues, such as health care and education, while more high-profile posts on defense and finance go to men.
Despite having a background in urban planning and a doctorate in international studies, Sjaifudian was ignored by party leaders when she requested to sit on the commission for infrastructure. Instead they placed her on a commission that oversees education, sports, tourism, arts and culture. When she questioned her placement, party leaders told Sjaifudian it was because she was a doctor–one more positioned to deal with foreign affairs than medicine, she argues.
Sjaifudian’s obstacle then became gaining influence in the commission, where she could guide decisions on budgets and legislation, as well as general floor debates. All MPs have the opportunity to speak during legislative debates, but again, final regulatory decisions remain in the hands of party leaders, who Sjaifudian says seldom take women’s concerns into account.
Few women participate in larger plenary debates for fear of being harassed or interrupted by men who make jokes or grab at their microphones.
"They don’t respect women who are active in the plenary, especially if the comments they make are not brilliant," said Sjaifudian. After almost a year she has yet to speak during a floor session.
Sjaifudian says she is frustrated with the power struggles and kowtowing required of women, adding that she has thought about resigning.
A quota system would give more women a chance to enter politics, Sjaifudian says, but parties also need to improve recruitment so that competent and credible women are in government.
Confidence and Preparation Required
Second-term parliamentarian Eva Kusuma Sundari from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), chaired by Indonesia’s first female president Megawati Sukarnoputri, seems a bit more hardened.
She says it takes confidence and preparation to be a female politician.
"Once you get in parliament, you must have a vision, a clear portfolio. If you don’t have that you won’t be able to maximize your role here and you won’t be able to bring any change," she said.
Sundari says the problem extends to anyone in the parliament, but because women are under more scrutiny, they are only able to command attention if they can show they’re above average.
The structure of the political parties is what really needs to change to ensure that the right women are recruited, not only those from dynasties, but also those who are capable, says Sundari. "If you have modern political parties that value you and measure you based on your performance, then it makes it easier for us to work in the parliament," she said.
With a background in economics, Sundari is well qualified to sit on the finance commission (though it took four years for party leaders to award her a seat there). But after criticizing a senior legislator’s suggestions on a draft money-laundering bill she was booted off that commission and reassigned to foreign affairs.
The defeat might have demoralized a junior politician, but not Sundari, who says the big challenge for women is gaining leadership status when many men underestimate them.
"In their subconscious, men still believe leadership positions are meant for them," she said.
Sundari says she now knows she must stay alert so she can maneuver draft laws in women’s favor. She has fought to raise the number of women on the police force above the current 2.5 percent level and pushed for $30 million to be added to the national budget to curb human trafficking.
As long as her actions don’t disturb the interests of more senior politicians, it’s not a problem, she says.
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Sara Schonhardt is a freelance journalist based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She has lived in Southeast Asia for five years, covering politics and socioeconomics, and has master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University.
For more information:
Power, Voice and Rights – A Turning Point for Gender Equality in Asia and the Pacific: