US President Barack Obama recently won another election by a landslide. Despite disappointments over his foreign policy, the debt crisis, the slow pace of economic growth and tackling unemployment, Obama is still perceived to be the one who speaks to the progressive agenda in America, especially on issues of women’s rights and equality for all.
In this election, there was a stronger presence of women who campaigned to their peers to vote and raised their voices to protect their rights, as well as a significant increase in those women who cast their ballots. Women’s representation has triumphed beyond party lines, as it was felt there was a great need to strike back against a conservative agenda that attacked women under the pretext of defending religious and moral values.
According to CNN’s exit polls, 55 percent of women voted for Obama and 44 percent voted for Mitt Romney. Significantly, women’s support in the swing states gave Obama a defining course, while he lost the support of men and independents in those states. This election is a milestone for women in politics in the US. Currently, the US Senate is occupied only by 17 women out of 100 seats. By Jan. 3, 2013 there will be three more women sitting in the chamber.
There will be a number of firsts for women in the political sphere: the first female senator from Massachusetts, the first open lesbian senator from Wisconsin, the first elected female senator from Nevada. The state of New Hampshire returned two women senators and a woman governor. Expectantly, with more women in Congress, men may have greater difficulty passing “anti-women bills” as they have to look their female colleagues in the eye and justify their reasoning.
The US played an instrumental role during the drafting of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) but failed to then ratify it. There are fears that the treaty could infringe on US laws.
How does the triumph of women’s representation in the US resonate with women’s representation in Indonesia? Indonesia ratified the CEDAW treaty in 1984 but gender mainstreaming remains political rhetoric as many women rights groups and gender-based organizations still view the idea of women’s representation as more about getting women elected, instead of inclusive representation, getting women involved and engaging women to fight for women’s causes.
What has happened in the US recently, where women from various professions, political beliefs, ages, races, religions and more, have built a shared vision to fight for women’s causes in the political sphere, is a worthy lesson that women activists or women politicians need to study.
In terms of women’s power, based on the most recent Central Statistics Agency (BPS) data, the women population reached 51 percent of the population while according to the National Elections Commission (KPU), the percentage of women who cast their ballots during the national or subnational elections ranged from 49 percent to 51 percent of total voters. Even after the passage of Election Law No. 12/2003, which stipulates a 30 percent quota for women in the Indonesian House of Representatives, the increase was still insignificant, that is from 11 percent in 2004 to 18 percent in 2009.
Regardless of the continent where women’s political aptitudes are contested, challenges to women’s abilities in the political arena persist. For several months after Hillary Clinton’s appointment as US secretary of state, the media opted to highlight her dress code.
Similarly, Nancy Pelosi, a long time congresswoman from California, is still criticized by the media because her leadership style is deemed too “motherly”. She was also once asked if she was not too old for the leadership of the House Representatives and she pointed out that nobody asked that question of her male colleagues. On the contrary, a show of emotion from male politicians will never be considered a weakness, but will instead be seen as an added value.
Even after decades of women playing political roles in the US, not all American women politicians are brilliant or live up to expectations, which often also depends on the kind of constituencies they represent. Some congresswomen from southern states can be as biased and oblivious as some women representative members from Jakarta or Kalimantan.
For instance, the campaign lines of US House of Representatives member Michelle Bachman or the provocative former US vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin can also easily be heard from representative members of Indonesia’s Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) or United Development Party (PPP), and even within some pseudo moderate parties, like the Democratic Party, the Golkar Party or the National Mandate Party (PAN).
Non-legislated quota or worse the indirectly repealed quota system by the Constitutional Court (MK) in 2009, does not at all signify an attempt to reserve the seat until so-called “competent women politicians” come to the fore. Instead, it is an obvious attempt to prolong women’s representation in politics.
Whether the involvement of women in politics is extensive or not, it still provides a learning curve, not only for candidates but especially to voters to exercise their judgment as to whom they would wish to trust with their aspirations.
Affirming women’s representation in a bolder way would do more to answer the demands of diverse and equal representation. A debt is owed, especially to those Indonesian women who have been actively engaged and have contributed vastly to their family, community and their country over generations.
The writer is executive director of the Women and Youth Development Institute of Indonesia (WYDII).