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Indonesia's youth and political inequality: How neo-traditionalism hinders women in politics

Fulcrum - April 24, 2024

Iim Halimatusa'diyah – Indonesia has a steep climb towards the recognition that women can play an equal part in the country's politics, especially as its youth are not immune to outdated ideas about gender roles.

Several Indonesian thinktanks have unofficially assessed that female representation in Indonesia's national parliament (DPR) for the term 2024-2029 would stand at about 19.65 per cent. If this proves correct, the proportion of women legislators in the new government will be lower than in previous years. During the 2019-2024 term, women's representation in the DPR was at 20.9 per cent, surpassing 17.32 per cent after the 2014 elections, whereas during Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's presidency (2004 and 2009 elections), women legislators accounted for only 11.1 and 17.86 per cent of legislators, respectively.

While improvements in Indonesia's electoral system and the internal structures of political parties are needed to provide more opportunities for women to participate in politics, the cultural attitudes of young voters (17-40 years old) towards gender roles and female political leadership are also crucial. As the most significant demographic of voters in the recent elections, at 56 per cent of the electorate, Indonesia's youth wield significant influence. Examining their current attitudes toward gender equality is essential for envisioning the future of women's political participation and leadership.

How receptive are Indonesian youth to women's political leadership? This author contends that while the youth have some concerns about equal political representation between genders, there is little room for optimism.

So far, Indonesia has only had one female president – its fifth – Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) Chairperson Megawati Sukarnoputri (r.2001-2004). Megawati ascended to this position after the People's Consultative Assembly removed her predecessor, Abdurrahman Wahid, from office; she was not directly elected. Even with name recognition and her notable career as opposition leader against Suharto, Megawati faced serious obstacles and opposition to her presidency given the misogynistic views of critics and doubters. Since her presidency, there has been no female presidential or vice-presidential candidate other than herself from the first direct presidential elections in 2004.

While there have been improvements in female representation from previous administrations, only six out of the 34 ministers (about 18 per cent) in the Joko Widodo-Ma'ruf Amin cabinet are women. Similarly, at the regional level, several women have led as governors, mayors, and regents but their leadership role in local politics remains limited. During Jokowi's leadership, in various regional elections from 2015 to 2020, women held only a handful of positions: by one count, there were three female deputy governors and one governor, 66 regents, 45 deputy regents, nine mayors, and 15 deputy mayors. Indonesia has 38 provinces and 416 regencies.

Nationally, female political representation increased from 1999's 8.8 per cent to 20.9 per cent in the 2019 election. However, this is low compared to other ASEAN countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam (both at 27 per cent), Lao (26 per cent), and Singapore (23 per cent). Meanwhile, the representation of women in parliament at the district level generally remains low, though disparities exist between regions.

In 2017, the Center for the Study Islam and Society (PPIM) of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN) Jakarta conducted a nationwide survey of 1,840 Indonesian Muslim youth. The respondents were mostly high school and university students aged between 15-24 years old, with more female than male participants. They were asked about their perception of women holding different political positions. The survey found that these youth generally held patriarchal views on politics, including that politics is a male-dominated area deemed less appropriate for women's participation. Male respondents consistently showed higher rates of disapproval compared to their female counterparts when asked if they approved of women holding certain political positions (Figure 1).

Summarising the results, many respondents perceived women as less capable of holding political positions compared to men. This view was particularly reflected in the high disapproval ratings for women holding the presidency, with 30.7 per cent of female respondents disapproving of this and 32.5 per cent of male respondents. The rates for heads of local government were 29.5 per cent of female respondents and 35.8 per cent of males disapproving of women holding such positions. The disapproval rates decreased for deputised or lower positions (for women), including those of the vice presidency, deputy regional head, ministerial, and legislative posts.

Sexist and masculine images associated with the highest political position often drive young voters, especially men, to oppose women leading such positions. Some scholars of Indonesian politics consider patriarchal values as a cultural barrier to women's representation in politics. As an affirmative action to increase women's political representation, the 2003 election law mandated a 30 per cent gender quota for female candidates at all legislative levels (national, provincial and district). Those who adhere strongly to patriarchal values are less inclined to vote for female candidates and endorse such quotas. Yet these scholars expect that improvements in political structure and institutions can enhance women's representation in politics and that younger generations would embrace a different value system and move towards a more egalitarian direction than previous generations. Nevertheless, women in Indonesia remain culturally disadvantaged due to the prevalence of patriarchal attitudes. The findings from the PPIM survey even suggest a contrary trend, with the younger generation leaning toward a neo-traditional gender perspective rather than progressing toward a more egalitarian direction.

In the domestic sphere, one study shows that Indonesia's educated urban youth support neo-traditional views on gender. These views typically assign men the role of primary breadwinners while positioning women as secondary earners within the family structure. The PPIM survey confirms the persistence of these neo-traditional attitudes but towards politics among educated Indonesian Muslim youth. While traditional views on gender prescribe distinct public and private roles for men and women, neo-traditional perspectives permit women to have public roles but they must remain subordinate to men. For politics, this manifests as accepting female representation in politics as long as women do not occupy the highest positions.

The prevalence of neo-traditional gender perspectives among Indonesia's Muslim youth indicates the importance of promoting gender equality from a young age. Female leadership in youth organisations at the tertiary level can foster awareness of gender equality and improve women's leadership skills and experiences.

Indonesia's religious leaders can contribute to the promotion of female political leadership by disseminating religious ideas and values that encourage gender equality, especially via social media where patriarchal and neo-traditional gender ideologies dominate. Additionally, civil society organisations working on gender issues should actively involve young religious leaders and influencers who might more effectively disseminate gender egalitarian values.

[Iim Halimatusa'diyah is a Visiting Fellow in the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, a Senior Lecturer at Islamic State University (UIN) Syarif Hidayatullah, and a Deputy Director for Research at the Center for the Study of Islam and Society (PPIM) UIN Jakarta.]

Source: https://fulcrum.sg/indonesias-youth-and-political-inequality-how-neo-traditionalism-hinders-women-in-politics