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Indonesian women seek to oust men from parliament

Published on 30/03/2009

Jakarta — Ahead of Indonesia’s April elections, female candidates are knocking on doors, making Facebook "friends" and even singing at circumcision ceremonies to break the male stranglehold on parliament.

Jakarta candidate Fitriah Elvie Sukaesih, a singer of dangdut folk-pop songs at weddings and circumcision celebrations, has a unique campaigning style, waiting until her signature tune to make her political pitch.

"I don’t say things like ‘vote for me’ but before I sing my favourite song ‘Sekuntum Mawar Merah’ (A Stalk of Red Rose) I say I’m running for election and ask people to pray for me," she said.

"I have received quite a lot of support." she adds.

Not all the Indonesian women candidates have Sukaesih’s talent for song, but they all share a passion for their country and a desire to change parliament’s gender imbalance.

About 360 of the 12,000 people vying for spots in the 560-seat House of Representatives are women, although women only account for 11 of the outgoing MPs.

Hopes for a more equal distribution of power in the most populous Muslim-majority country were dashed last month when the government blocked a bid by the electoral commission to set aside 30 percent of seats for women.

Women’s activists and legislators have threatened to take to the streets to pressure the government to allocate more seats to women, but most admit they face an uphill battle in what remains a deeply patriarchal society.

"In Indonesia, women are always sidelined in terms of access to education, health care, the economy and politics. Women always have to assume the supportive role while men take on the decision-making role," said Indonesian Women’s Coalition secretary general Masruchah.

"There are many women who meet the minimum criteria for the elections but the community always assumes women don’t have the capacity to lead," she added.

Centre for Electoral Reform analyst Hadar Nafis Gumay said Islam was another obstacle.

"Indonesia is a male-dominated society and a lot of things, including politics, are done the Muslim way," he said.

"A lot of Muslim political parties and religious leaders say women are not appropriate to lead the country and if a country is led by women, the country will be destroyed."

Megawati Sukarnoputri, who led the country as president between 2001-2004, is a notable exception to the rule. But she also hails from an exceptional political family with a powerful legacy.

The quietly-spoken leader of the Democratic Party of Struggle is the daughter of the country’s first president, Sukarno, seen as the hero of Indonesian independence.

Few would argue that without her pedigree Megawati would never have entered politics or won a single vote.

Yet today she remains the closest rival of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as the liberal ex-general seeks re-election in July.

"She benefited from her father’s legacy (in 2001). That was her source of power. To become president this time round, she will have to prove that professionally she can do the job," said political analyst Sri Budi Eko Wardani.

Women from less fortunate backgrounds have no such reservoir of power to draw upon as they take to the hustings ahead of the April 9 general elections. But they are not short of imagination, ideas and energy.

Wearing a tracksuit and running shoes, Jakarta candidate and former television newscaster Yasmin Muntaz has been knocking on "thousands of doors" in her South Jakarta neighbourhood of Bintaro for the past three months.

"The best time to visit homes is at 6:00 am. Everyone is awake and getting ready to go to work or school. I introduce myself and convince them to choose me," she said.

Muntaz has also set up a profile on Internet networking site Facebook to post her thoughts on politics and chat with her 1,600 "friends".

Many of the women may be cash-strapped and politically inexperienced, but they know their male competitors are seen as corrupt and lazy after a spate of corruption scandals involving senior male officials and lawmakers.

"The public knows we aren’t like male politicians who are corrupt and womanising, and that we are more meticulous than men. Those are our plus points," female lawmaker Watty Amir said.

Arlina Arshad/AFP/Expatica