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Indonesia: A Women's Leader?

Far Eastern Economic Review - February 2, 1999

Margot Cohen – Presidential hopeful Megawati Sukarnoputri is unquestionably the most prominent woman in Indonesian politics today. So what has she done for women lately?

Not much, critics grouse. Her speeches never include passionate advocacy of women's rights. Her own inner circle contains remarkably few women: Her political party's 17-member central board has only one other woman apart from Megawati, the chairman. The party has not gone out if its way to recruit new women leaders, nor sought to transform its macho image – fuelled by young male supporters, their T-shirts emblazoned with the party sign of the bull, who roar through the streets in motorbike convoys.

That makes some observers less than bullish on prospects for women's advancement if the 52-year-old daughter of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, succeeds in becoming the nation's fourth president. "If we cannot get away from this dynastic politics, it will be difficult for women to achieve real parity with men," argues presidential aide Dewi Fortuna Anwar. Noting the track record of Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto and India's Indira Gandhi, Dewi says: "These women leaders, who emerge because of a legacy, have not done much to improve participation of women as a whole. Because they themselves do not see their achievement as that of a woman," but as a dynastic successor.

Given that Megawati appears to take women's rights for granted, it's all the more ironic that the gender factor could prove a barrier to her ascendancy. In early November, a national Islamic congress in Jakarta recommended that women be barred from the presidency and the vice-presidency. Grounded in a particular interpretation of Koranic teachings, the recommendation emerged after lively debate among some 1,500 participants, including Muslim clerics with strong followings in the countryside.

However, many Indonesian Muslims – especially women – disagree. They argue that there is no prohibition in the Koran on women holding high office, and charge that politics, more than faith, motivated congress participants. Indeed, some of the clerics at the congress have been busy promoting their own political parties.

"They were aiming at Megawati, even though this was not expressed explicitly," grumbles Khofifah Indar Parawansa, who sits on the central board of the National Awakening Party, a potential coalition partner with Megawati's party, the PDI Perjuangan.

The controversy could intensify in the coming months, with the government-appointed Indonesian Ulamas' Council, a committee of Islamic scholars, expected to discuss a fatwa, a binding ruling, on the subject.

Under such circumstances, Megawati could use more women in her corner. Her supporters pledge that the party will start grooming more women for leadership positions. Noviantika Nasution, the only other woman on the party's central board, says it's time to liberate women from their traditional role of supplying food for party functions. "We have a great deal of homework ahead of us in terms of positioning women in the organization," she says.

Megawati, too, is distributing crumbs of encouragement. When party members gather at her south Jakarta home for a weekly dialogue, Megawati reportedly exhorts the housewives among them: "Ladies, as chairman I instruct you to read the newspapers after you finish cooking." Will male rivals cook up overwhelming opposition? A female presidency is certainly not an option National Mandate Party chairman Amien Rais savours, even though his own party platform supports women's rights. Sure, a woman can become president, he says – as long as there's no competent man to do the job.