Lessons Learned: The Actual Cost of Doing Politics for Women

Rina Meutia

As a development practitioner I understand that women in politics is imperative for successful local development. A friend once told me that development without women’s involvement is like seeing the world with only one eye. You can still see, but not perfectly. Some even give a more radical view that it is like flying with only one wing – it is impossible to fly. Understanding the importance of women’s participation in the development process and in local politics is not rocket science. As women constitute fifty percent of the world’s population[1], excluding them in decision-making simply means signing up for ineffective development. How can the world possibly operate when the needs of half of its population are not understood? How can they be understood when their voices are not heard? How can they be heard when they are not represented? Unfortunately, the world is still operating with that one eye. A recent study from Women and Politics Institute[2] shows that there is a persistent gender gap in political ambition. Women are less likely than men to seek or to even consider a political career despite their full capacity and enabling environment to do so. To quote the former First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt: if women want to be in politics, they need to “grow skin as thick as a rhinoceros”. To some extent, this is still true and relevant today. But if the theory says that women in politics are imperative to development, why are there only a few women in local politics?

In Indonesia there are no legal barriers to women’s participation in politics and government[3]. The national government even passed a law mandating a 30% quota for women in national and local parliaments. This quota was one of the approaches adopted to increase women’s representation in the government. But what actually happens is that quota is now viewed as a barrier for women to participate meaningfully. The imposed quota system might sound like a good idea as it can serve as an awareness campaign tool on the importance of women’s involvement in politics and government but at the same time, it can encourage counterproductive practices and jeopardize the genuine participation of women.

Interestingly, in the province of Aceh, the 30% quota is not a new idea, and neither is women’s activism in public and political life an imported concept. The practice was introduced in the 16th century, and the history of Aceh is packed with stories of influential female leaders, with Acehnese women long active in public life from warfare to governance. Following the death of Sultan Iskandar Muda, four Sultanah, or Queens, governed the Kingdom of Aceh for nearly six decades[4]. During those periods, 22 of 73 parliament members were women, meaning that a 30% ‘quota’ for women parliamentarians has existed in the Aceh parliament for decades. In this respect it is not western concept, rather an Aceh concept. With its stunning achievement for female political figures in the past, one could presume that Aceh should be far ahead of the rest of the world in respect to women’s political participation, that there is no valid reason for Aceh to make a big fuss about women in politics. However, the reality today is quite the contrary. There are not nearly enough Acehnese women who are willing run for elected office.

Aceh Islamic and Political Context

After 30 years of armed conflict, and following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, in August 2005 the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) decided to compromise its demand for independence from Indonesia and agreed to special autonomy status. Under the special autonomy law, Aceh, with a predominantly Muslim population, decided to adopt Shariah Law. Although there is nothing in the Shariah that prevents women from participating in the public sphere[5], the law has been conveniently used by several conservatives in power in the province to justify more control over women’s political and leadership roles in Aceh.

As part of the 2005 Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding that ended the 30-year conflict, Aceh was given a provision allowing the establishment local political parties – the only province in Indonesia with that right. Initially, this arrangement was intended to provide an alternative for GAM to appropriately channel its political aspirations for Aceh. As a result, GAM transformed itself into a political party (named Partai Aceh) which won two consecutive parliamentary elections in 2009 and 2014. However, the journey of the local party has not always been smooth. The party got carried away with its new power, which resulted in internal conflict. The friction triggered the establishment of another local party, Partai Nasional Aceh (PNA).

Women in Local Politics: Expectations and Reality

I have been very passionate to be a social change agent ever since I was a little girl. My decision to leave my career and jump into politics to run for a local parliamentary election was motivated by my dissatisfaction with many of Aceh’s current public policies and regulations that neither focus on development priorities nor empower women. The fact that there were only four women of the 69 elected assembly members in the 2009-2014 Aceh parliament meant it would have been presumptuous to expect any gender-balanced laws to be produced. Following the 2014 elections, the number of women in the local parliament tripled – currently there are an overwhelming 12 women out of 81 elected members. My experience campaigning for a seat in the provincial parliament provided disheartening insight into why the number of women in politics remains low.

Of the three local parties present in Aceh, I decided to join the opposition party during the 2014 election campaign. My choice of PNA was a natural pick, particularly since I disagreed with almost all of policies generated by the incumbent regime. Around 70% of the members from the party are ex-combatants, however, the remaining portion is allocated for the so-called intellectuals. However, once inside, I realized that the percentage was much smaller than the claim. The two of very different groups certainly create interesting dynamics inside the party, and the influence of the ex-combatants was dominant in the party’s policies and approaches. Given my professional background in international development, I, for many reasons, found it difficult to fit in.

However, one positive fact that separates PNA from other local and even national parties was the ‘fit and proper ‘test. Unlike other parties, the party did not charge candidates any fees to become a candidate. All candidates, including regular party members, also have to pass the test. An independent team from the university conducted the knowledge test, while the Ulama Council undertook the Al-Quran reading test. Despite some complaints from the party elites about my liberal appearance, I passed the test fairly easily.

Interestingly, when I applied to PNA, I did not realize that all of the political parties were in a desperate search for female candidates. The Independent Election Commission does not accept the submission of legislative candidate proposals if the 30% quota for women is not fulfilled. This quota has been problematic for many political parties, due to insufficient genuine interest from the women themselves to participate in politics. The majority of the women recruited were wives of the party elites. However, it was unclear to me whether there was some kind of agreement behind these proposals, because in most cases these women were not expected to seriously participate in the actual campaign. The fact I showed up at the party’s doorstep probably saved the party from searching for more women. I was pleased to note that the quality of many women candidates in PNA was significantly better than other parties. They included female activists, businesswomen and professionals. Disconcertingly, the motivations of most of the women were rather vague. Most were not idealistic and not passionate when talking about change or other social issues. Many were there only for the status and the money. These two elements are the center point of a traditional election campaign in Aceh, and generally in Indonesia and elsewhere.

Money politics. There is a belief in Indonesian and Aceh politics that only rich people can run for office. The cost of running a campaign is not cheap. Fundraising is not common, almost unheard of. Candidates use their own money and wealth to finance the campaign. This is the reason why traditionally only the wealthy have run. Most people in running for office both at national and local levels take many unmeasured risks and sell their assets such as cars, land, and shops and even take bank loans to gamble for a parliamentary seat. They believe that all they have to do to change their life is to invest in gifts. Money politics is rampant, acceptable and has become part of the electoral culture. The Shariah Law that is supposed to guide Muslims in Aceh to be better and honest does not seem to apply to bribing during elections. Even candidates, both male and female, who seem to be more religious than others do not avoid the practice.

The types of gifts are varied from expensive, medium to cheap gifts. Expensive gifts such as agricultural equipment, sport courts, cows, micro credits, etc, are typically for communal use, not individual. The gifts are normally given to communities if the head of village promises that every household will give their votes to a certain candidate. The popular mid-priced gifts are sarongs, headscarves, prayer rugs/books, uniforms for female Quranic groups, even charity donations to mosques and orphanages. The catch is that they are religious-affiliated attributes to camouflage the money politics motive behind. The inexpensive gifts are something more practical, such as credit for mobile phones, coffee, cigarettes, Tupperware, etc. For example, I recall a statement from the party chief where he urged all candidates to be generous with money and to pay for coffee for everyone during the campaign period. However, in the end, inexpensive gifts are never cheap when multiplied by the number of potential voters in each constituency. In every election, there is stiff competition among candidates because people in the community will accept all gifts from every candidate and will vote for the ones with the most expensive gifts. On average, legislative candidates in Aceh spend between USD 30,000 to USD 300,000 for a campaign depending on the location of their constituency. Post-election stress has become quite a phenomenon in Indonesia. Some local newspapers[6] in Aceh reported that following the national trend, the Public Mental Hospital in Aceh decided to prepare special rooms and extra beds for legislative candidates who failed in their election bid and went bankrupt. This also explains how prohibitively expensive election campaigns can be for women in particular. I ran a ‘non-traditional’ campaign, refusing to give money or gifts of any kind in exchange for votes. Instead of using my personal money to finance my campaign, I fundraised by selling specially designed campaign T-shirts and merchandise. I publicly announced the amount I raised and spent on the campaign through social media and reported it to the party and the election commission.

Pious public image. Another pivotal issue for local politics is the image that the candidate must portray. Society always (irrationally) expects its leaders to be perfect human beings. This expectation exists throughout Indonesia, but given the role of Shariah law in Aceh, the pressure to appear religious is particularly strong. During campaign seasons, all candidates suddenly become angelic and religious beings, with choreographed public images to give a specific impression to potential voters. Some even hire a communication strategist to work on their public image. Public image is important but has been misused and become one of the big problems in present-day politics. Nowadays, it is very difficult to know who candidates truly are since everything has been fabricated or nuanced. My experience was having constituents more concerned with how I dressed and wore my veil, and in particular my marital status – a question that no male candidate would be asked. There was little interest in the particular policy platform that I stood for. I believe it is very important to be genuine and honest about who we really are when running a campaign. People deserve to know the truth and be informed before making their final decision about whom to vote for.

Why are we not seeing enough women in local politics? What can we do to change that?

When people constantly asked me how difficult it was to run in a parliamentary election as a woman, I began to carefully observe how people treated me as opposed to male candidates. For example, most of the negative comments I received were about the style of my in my campaign picture; it was not Islamic enough by Aceh standards. Society seemed to tolerate male campaign photos regardless of how ridiculous they were. For instance, on the back of a horse or with sunglasses. People feel entitled to criticize women all they want, but not men.

I have to admit that life in politics is not easy for women. Women who hold higher social status are more likely to survive in politics. Women whose families have been in politics gain significant advantage and are more likely to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, women’s education levels or professional capacity are often overlooked. Without being too cynical, a majority of women who have prominent careers and influence in politics have the right family background. To name a few: Aung San Su Kyi; Benazir Bhutto; Sonia Gandhi; Yingluck Shinawatra; Hillary Clinton; Caroline Kennedy, and even Megawati Soekarno Putri. Margaret Thatcher perhaps was the only exception in the list. But we all know that her efforts and struggles to be accepted were extraordinary.

Family networks and wealth have been the key factor for many successful male and female politicians in Aceh. For example, the amount of money given to the party will decide whether or not someone is accepted as a candidate. (This is particularly difficult for male candidates since the competition to receive a spot on the party list is fierce). This cost does not apply to women yet; especially given the current low interest among women in engage in local politics. But this rule could change once the level of interest from women increases in the future.

Unfortunately in many cultures, the position of women in the society has been predetermined. Women are expected to prioritize family and children before their professional career. A political career is therefore that much harder and is considered to be extraordinary so is given far lower priority. Society judges them and will not vote for them with the (erroneous) view that you must be a poor mothers or homemakers. It is quite natural for women to want to focus on family and home first, and is probably one of the hardest factors to overcome if they are passionate about getting involved in local politics. Particularly at the local level, information and news about current political and social issues generally takes place in such locations as coffee shops, which, in a more conservative environment such as in Aceh, is men’s domain. The separation of genders can affect women’s confidence to engage in local politics, even when it comes to voting for other women.

However, it does not mean there is nothing we can do to prepare for those challenges. First and foremost, we need to ensure that whenever a woman decides to step up and subject herself to the political process an enabling social environment is available to her. We need to continuously educate society and raise awareness about the benefits of more women in politics to improve the quality of their lives. This preparation is key to ending the cycle of judgment that takes place between women. Sometimes what really discourages women to be publically active is exactly this: social judgment. Several examples of the enabling environment include facilitating women to bring their children to meetings without making them feel like it is a burden; to be flexible with meeting schedules so as to not coincide with children’s school schedules; etc. There are many other alternatives and ideas we can create to work out some solutions. Having gone through a campaign and lost, my final conclusion for the most effective investment to change the situation is to engage with our younger generation. Civic and political education for children, both male and female, must be the key component of our efforts. And that’s where I am heading next[7].

[1] http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL.FE.ZS

[2] http://www.american.edu/spa/wpi/upload/Girls-Just-Wanna-Not-Run_Policy-Report.pdf

[3] A 2010 UNDP Policy Paper: Women’s Participation in Politics and Government in Indonesia

[4] Sultanah Safiatuddin Syah (1675); Sultanah Nurul Alam Naqiatuddin (1675-1678); Sultanah Inayat Zakiatuddin Syah (1677-1688); Sultanah Kamalat Zainatuddin Syah (1688-1699).

[5] There are many verses in Al-Qur’an that state there is no difference between men and women before God Allah[5]. Both men and women have equal opportunities and rights to attain taqwa or piety, including serving for the good of public. One most quoted verse that specifically states that is At-Tawbah: 71 – “The believers, men and women, are protectors one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and obey Allah and His Messenger. On them will Allah pour His mercy: for Allah is exalted in power, wise.” Although Muslim women have enjoyed their rights to vote, be elected and to assume public offices long before western culture even allowed women to vote, female leadership in Islam is still being widely misunderstood, and even has gained many controversies throughout history. However, despite the different views among Ulamas or Islamic scholars on the issue, several Muslim countries, such as Indonesia, Turkey, and Pakistan have in fact elected female head of states.

[6] http://aceh.tribunnews.com/2014/01/23/rsj-siapkan-ruangan-bagi-caleg-stres-pascapemilu


[7] ETIKA – Edukasi Politik Aceh – is a new NGO which focuses on the political education of youth in Aceh. Find it on Facebook: www.facebook.com/edukasipolitikaceh

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