Defending women in politics

On Oct. 9 Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard defended herself against opposition party leader Tony Abbott’s attack on women. Abbott’s statements, the likes of: “What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing…,” and “If the Prime Minister wants to, politically speaking, make an honest woman of herself…,” and similar condescending remarks were thrown back at him.

Gillard stated that people who hold sexist views are not appropriate for high office, and thus advised Abbott to resign. Apart from the likelihood of whether that will happen or not, we need to highlight that there have been examples of women being defended in politics.

The act of defending women can also be practiced by men. One example of this is US President Barack Obama. His famous line, “I want my daughters to have the same opportunities as your sons” was appreciated worldwide. President Obama is known for his commitment to gender equality and supports women to get better wages (he signed the Fair Pay Act); to have better security (last year the White House released a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security); and to play an important role (remember that he assigned Hillary Clinton as the
Secretary of State).

President Obama unreservedly made a strong statement when a member of the opposition, Republican Todd Akin, stated that certain rapes could be legitimized. He said that Akin’s expressed view was offensive and that “Rape is rape. And the idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we are talking about doesn’t make sense.”

Does defending women in politics gain more votes? Yes, most of the time. A survey conducted by the Sydney Morning Herald after Julia Gillard’s speech saw Abbott looking worse than Gillard. A similar result was delivered by The Washington Post at end of September showed that female voters favored Obama (58 percent) compared to his election opponent Mitt Romney (39 percent). Romney’s popularity diminished when he could not outline his plan to rectify inequality in the workplace.

It fair to say that the women issue is crucial in a society where women fought to gain their rights to vote and compete in the election. The US declared independence in 1776 yet women were only allowed to vote starting from 1920. While in colonies of Australia, where voting was introduced in 1856, women were only able to vote from 1894.

Therefore, issues such as reproductive health, equal pay, child care and access to education are being discussed in the US election along with the regular campaign messages, including nationalist, religious or other identity politics to gain votes. Women here show that their opinions matter.

In countries where voting rights for women were not gained through deep struggle, the women’s issue is minimally discussed. For example in Saudi Arabia, where last year King Abdullah allowed women to vote in the 2015 municipal election, politicians dare to say that rape is caused by women’s way of dressing and therefore their body is discussed more as a mystified object rather than an individual subject.

Last year, a research report given by King Fahd University to Saudi’s highest decision making body – the Shura Council — stated that allowing women to drive would “provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce”. Based on this research, the Saudi government is contemplating a further ban on women displaying their eyes.

Another example is Indonesia. The country adopted a colonial administration system that started giving women public roles in its people council (Volksraad) in 1938 and three years later allowed them to be elected. Thus, although Indonesian women already held their first national congress in 1928, their roles and outlook at that time were still bound to the home.

This resulted in the agreement to commemorate the first day of the Women’s Congress as National Mother’s Day, rather than women’s empowerment day. At that time, women’s demands were mostly to do with marriage arrangements and family related issues, rather than being respected and represented equally in public, and it has not changed much.

This is shown in the latest case of demeaning remarks made toward a rape victim. Education and Culture Minister Mohammad Nuh made insensitive comments on Oct. 11 in the case of a 14-year-old student that had been raped and expelled from school. Similar comments emerged in September last year by former Jakarta governor Fauzi Bowo, when he was speaking about rape on public transportation.

Action should be taken so that such shameful public official statements are not repeated. However, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is reluctant to reprimand any of his staff regarding their disrespect toward women, especially women victims.

This is a good timing for women to be more engaged in politics and to demand more respect, like Julia Gillard has done, rather than wait for someone like Obama to defend them. This is because the politics reflected by state officials are still very much masculine in nature and are dominated by the “old-boys network”, which does not care for the underrepresented: minorities and women.

Unless people actively engage in politics and state their interests, their existence will be the object of power and interest of others. The silent majority should remember that silence will not protect them.


The writer is an associate research fellow at Rajaratnam School of International Relations, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and Women Peace and Security fellow at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, Hawaii.

Published in Jakarta Post, 31 October 2012

Julia Gillard photo is copyright of Guardian 

Barack Obama photo is copyright of Nerve

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono photo is copyright of Hapin

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