Indonesia's had gender quotas in parliament for years - why aren't they working?


Indonesians go to the polls on Wednesday. Here, female candidates tell us why representation matters and how Islam plays a role in women running for office.

From her home in Jakarta, Permaswari Wardani proudly holds up an intricate hand-drawn comic.

It’s her humorous take on what she sees as the wrongs in Indonesian politics today.

The 38-year-old architect hopes the run of 5,000 copies – leading to donations – will help propel her to an upper house seat in her country’s parliament, within the week.

She’s running for the PSI, or Indonesian Solidarity Party, a young party focusing on women’s rights.

Women account for nearly half its candidates in legislative elections, to be held on the same day as the presidential poll on 17 April. More than 193 million people are eligible to vote. 

“I feel confident,” she tells SBS News. I believe Indonesians want change and want to see better electoral outcomes.”

Permaswari Wardani
Permaswari Wardani is running for a party focusing on women’s rights.
SBS News

Indonesia is one of many countries to adopt electoral quotas to redress the gender imbalance in parliament.

But despite parties being subject to a 30 per cent quota of female candidates since 2003 – the proportion of actual women MPS has peaked at just above 17 per cent at the three elections since – even falling slightly at the most recent 2014 poll.

“Parties often treat these quotas as a box-ticking exercise,” says Ben Hillman, a researcher on political inclusion at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy.

“They don’t take the recruitment and training of women candidates as seriously as they should, and they tend not to place women in winnable seats, or in high positions on the list where they’re more likely to attract votes.”

Cultural factors

In recent years, significant bills directly impacting women have entered Indonesia’s parliament.

A proposed anti-sexual violence law is being opposed by conservative forces including Islam-based political parties. And a law to protect Indonesian domestic workers abroad has yet to be enacted.

But if more women parliamentarians would influence outcomes -  a host of cultural factors present significant barriers.

Dr Hillman says politics is widely seen as a dirty business, hence an inappropriate activity for women – as is having women work after dark or travel into the evening.

For tech-savvy candidate and mother-of-three Permaswani Wardari, social media allows her to surmount that practical problem at least.

“I do go out into the community,” she says. “After I go home I take care of my kids, then start to make videos and comics. I share them through social media and WhatsApp groups. So the technology helps us women to make time for both campaigning and taking care of our children.

Nursyahbani Katjasungkana
Nursyahbani Katjasungkana says she was "lucky" to have been an MP during 'Reformasi' - the democratisation period that ended a decade ago.

Other cultural barriers may be harder to overcome.

Within Indonesia’s traditionally patriarchal society, the Marriage Law dating back to 1974 still stipulates women’s primary role is as wife and homemaker.

Veteran activist Nursyahbani Katjasungkana – a one-time MP with the Islam-based People’s Awakening Party notes, with regret, what she calls growing fundamentalism over the years.

“I was lucky to be an MP in that period [the early 2000s],” says the 64-year-old. “A climate of democratisation was still there. I managed to speak freely”.

“Now on TV, even the women preachers tell the audience that the primary duty of women is to be a wife and homemaker. That is not encouraging at all”.

Even the women preachers tell the audience that the primary duty of women is to be a wife and homemaker.

- Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, Former Indonesian MP

Islam is the most common religion in Indonesia, adhered to by more than 87 per cent of the country’s 264 million people.

But some analysts say it’s a mistake to blame the religion for the challenges female candidates face.

“Certainly there are conservative clerics whose views on the role of women, and the influence those views have, do make it difficult for women candidates in some places, says Dr Hillman.

“It’s also true that Islam and Sharia-inspired by-laws, that discriminate against women – including regulating their appearance and conduct, and in some cases restrict their travel and movement – those laws certainly restrain and impede women running for office.”

“But Islam and the networks provided by Islamic organisations …often serve as a platform for women candidates.

Institutional barriers

Ella Prihatini, of the University of Western Australia’s Centre of Muslim States and Societies, agrees.

“Political Islam can help women’s political nomination,” she says.  

“We can’t use blanket statements and say that the more political Islam rises, the lower are women’s chances of getting elected. It doesn’t work like that. The Indonesian case is very unique.

Structural factors, she believes, are more important, including “out of control” costs of running a six-month-long campaign mostly with little party support.

Political Islam can help women’s political nomination ... We can’t use blanket statements.

- Ella Prihatini, Academic

Costs increased exponentially in 2009 when rule changes obliged candidates in a party list to compete for votes, making individual “ground wars” more important.

Permaswani Wardani’s first comic dealt with “money politics” -  voters offering cash and households goods, in return for votes – a practice for which Indonesia is notorious. The comic’s protagonist is a female candidate who was asked for such gifts but refused.

“I put some jokes in it. I hope people get the fact that money politics is very dangerous, as it encourages you to be corrupt once you get elected because you want your money back.”

Indonesians Voting In Malaysia
An Indonesian student living in Malaysia shows her inked finger after casting her overseas ballot in Kuala Lumpur.
Getty Images

The bar is certainly raised for women from non-elite backgrounds, and it remains true that many successful women candidates are married or blood-related to powerful men.

Nursyahbani Katjasungkana secured a lower house seat for her People’s Awakening Party at the 2004 poll, but lost it in 2009 amid a bitter party split.

She says she was forced to change seats, to make way for the sister of then-party leader and former president Abdurrahman Wahid.

“It’s so easy to remove another women candidate when the political leader wants another woman in that constituency,” she says.

Change could take years

For years, many political parties and non-government organisations have offered training to prepare female candidates.

Academic Ms Prihatini proposes an extra step of affirmative action.

“Rather than having a 30 per cent quota for female candidates, it should be 30 per cent of women in the top position on the candidates’ list. That is more important. That might be a gamechanger.”

For now, she and other analysts struggle to find optimism.

And while young Indonesians  – accounting for 30 per cent of voters – may be expected to be more favourable to young women like comic artist Permaswari Wardani, they say most parties are still yet to harness social media sufficiently to gain widespread popularity.

Significant change, says Dr Hillman, could be "two or three election cycles" away.

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