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In Indonesia, women (not) behaving badly

Mannequins model women's clothing in an Indonesian market. President Joko Widodo's appointment of an all-female panel to select anti-corruption commissioners has sparked anger at home.   © Photo by Melanie Whitmarsh

Indonesia's most respected institution -- the Corruption Eradication Commission or KPK -- has recently been badly bruised in an ongoing battle with the police. Now, President Joko Widodo is calling in a group of nine women to help repair the damage done by a grand clashing of male egos.

     At first blush, this deeply symbolic act seems to affirm an important role for women in the politics of the world's largest Muslim-majority nation. But set in the context of other recent events, it is harder to find the move encouraging.

     The KPK cannot function because several commissioners had to resign after being accused by the police of various misdeeds earlier in their careers. Many people believe the charges are a tit-for-tat response from a police force embittered by the KPK's investigations into corruption among top-ranking police officers. The whole spectacle has been like watching a boxing match: all testosterone-filled posturing and very little common sense.

     Widodo has until now been little more than a spectator at the match, and his own credibility has been much undermined as a result. By entrusting an all-female panel with the selection of the replacement commissioners, he is perhaps hoping to send a signal that the time for fistfighting is over. Cooler heads are needed, the move implies, to refocus the dispute on the common enemy of corruption, rather than on one another.

     The president probably also believes that an all-female panel will reduce the likelihood of appointments to the KPK being made through the deep channels of patronage and mutual obligation that are the norm in Indonesia's chronically transactional political and judicial systems. He is right, but that does not actually mean women are more honest than men, just that they have, historically, been more excluded from the trough of patronage.

     Indeed Widodo knows better than most that women in Indonesia, given the opportunity, are every bit as likely as men to value political and personal loyalty more than competence. His own female patron Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president and now the chairwoman of Widodo's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), is the high priestess of relationship politics. The daughter of Indonesia's first president Sukarno, she has, since birth, been intimately woven into networks of power and privilege that would carry her far, with or without personal qualities.

Less symbolism, more equality

The majority of the women on the KPK selection panel, in contrast, are there very much because of their personal qualities, which are not in doubt. Most of them are academics or activists, and none are involved in party politics. They include specialists on money laundering, political transparency, economics and criminal law. Though some are from well-known families, all have substituted competence for the connections so often used by male politicians to get ahead.

     Less beholden to old-boy networks than many of their male colleagues, these women may well cast the net into unusual waters in the search for strong candidates for KPK commissioners, and the commission would be the stronger for it. Paradoxically, though, their relative independence is a mark of the weak position of women in Indonesian public life. If they do not behave the way Sukarnoputri or their male colleagues do, it is because they do not have the same grip on the social, professional and political ropes of patronage that bind this complex nation together and which can pull people forward regardless of talent.

     Women in Indonesia need less symbolism and more equality of opportunity, including in the face of the law. The president could start by asking the military and the police to stop subjecting female recruits to an extraordinarily intrusive virginity test. The head of Indonesia's armed forces, General Moeldoko, in mid-May referred to these tests as an essential measure of the morality of potential recruits. "There's no other way," he told reporters. He did not explain how the morality of male recruits is tested.

     Though the Indonesian president has very little influence over the way law is enforced in Indonesia's decentralized political system, he should encourage communities to take a stand against an increasingly visible tendency to victimize women who challenge men and the rules they make.

More weight on a man's word

Many will remember a particularly horrible incident last year in which a 25-year-old widow was raped by eight men in retribution for having sex with another man after her husband's death. More recently, a woman confided to a friend in a private Facebook chat that her husband was beating her. The husband read his wife's mail without her consent and denounced her to the local police for spreading immoral content over the Internet. Rather than investigate the claims of domestic violence, the police prosecuted the woman for defamation. In March, she was sentenced to five months in jail. While this is less egregious than gang rape, it nonetheless illustrates a tendency to value men's words over women's.

     Much of the outcry over these cases comes from outside Indonesia. The continued use of the virginity test, for example, resurfaced in the Indonesian press only after complaints from U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch. Indonesian reactions to the all-female selection panel appointed by the president have ranged from muted to hostile. An example of the latter comes from the widely read Jawa Pos newspaper, where law lecturer Samsul Wahidin commented: "It will also be hard to fulfill the hope that the KPK will be a body worthy of respect if it is filled with members picked by women, whose perspective and performance will, of course, be more limited, not like a man's. Of course, their perspective could lead them also to pick women. A female selection committee leading to female KPK commissioners. Oh ... God ... ."

     The Indonesian president may have had the best of intentions in appointing a seemingly symbolic panel. But women in Indonesia will not have achieved true political equality until they have the opportunity to behave just as badly as men.

Elizabeth Pisani is an author, most recently of "Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation."

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