If you want, you can
Getting gender balance in public life isn’t just a matter of encouraging women to enter politics. There are other issues – like the bureaucracy, culture, and a down and dirty image. Then there’s relatives.
When Ledia Hanifa Amaliah entered the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR – House of Representatives) in 2009 and had to attend late night meetings her mother-in-law asked: “So after this you will leave my son?”
Ledia found this amusing: “My three sons and my husband (Bachtiar Sunasto, an education consultant) have been enormously supportive. Before we got married he knew I wasn’t going to be a kitchen person but an outside woman.
“Family backing is important, but that’s not the only factor. Women wanting to enter politics need to be educated – and that’s something our school system doesn’t do well. We need to learn self-esteem, to be assertive, to be articulate without emotion.”
It also helps if you have relatives who spot your interest and ability at an early age. Both Ledia’s parents worked and encouraged her to be independent – even to the point of selecting her own school (“I chose the one with the best Scout group”) - and responsible. As the eldest child with two brothers she was expected to help with their upbringing
Another significant figure was her late grandfather Hasan Nataperhana who was involved with regional politics.
“He encouraged me to read certain books and phoned me every week from Bandung when we were in Jakarta,” she said. “He urged me to ask questions about everything and always spoke in Sundanese.
“At the time I didn’t realise that he was leading me in this direction, but now I’m really thankful. It was an unusual family for the times. I was blessed.”
After graduating with a degree in chemistry Ledia considered a career in industry, but decided this wouldn’t suit her personality – confined to a factory and regular hours. So she returned to study – this time for a master’s degree in social psychology.
This led to work with non-government organizations and the conservative Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS – Prosperous Justice Party), the successor of the Justice Party that failed when it couldn’t muster more than two per cent of the vote.
Campaigning on its Islamic credentials and anti-corruption platform the PKS is now the fourth largest party in Parliament with 57 seats and 7.88 per cent of the popular vote.
However its gender- balance at just over five per cent is the lowest in the DPR, and far below the professed 30 per cent goal of all political parties.
Ledia agreed it wasn’t a good look, blaming a failure in strategy and an inability to marshal critical support even though a third of the party’s candidates in 2009 were women.
Despite being kneecapped by these crippling facts she struggles on womanfully, commenting frankly on mainstream issues, from the plight of Indonesian workers in Malaysia through to the lack of hospitals in the Republic.
A further handicap has been a testy relationship with the media, which she alleged is unfriendly towards women in politics, though she excluded this paper from her criticism.
“Some of my colleagues have decided that they don’t want to talk to journalists and would rather pay them to write good news,” she said. “I don’t take that view even though I’ve been badly misquoted. I believe in transparency.”
She’s run workshops for the husbands of women considering politics, telling the men that if their wives have the potential and interest in public life then the whole family will be blessed.
Ledia could also have added that men need a tough hide when they take a Prince Philip role, forever a couple of steps behind the monarch. Bachtiar Sunasto has had to put up with mothers pitying him when visiting his children’s school alone when Mom was campaigning, lecturing or meeting constituents.
She’s also written a book with a self-explanatory title - If we want, we can “not to show off but to give encouragement.”
Unlike many of her opponents at 43 she has age on her side, an easy relaxed disposition and has yet to learn the dark arts of dissembling that tend to repel young idealists from politics.
“I entered public life to make my country a better place,” she said. “Women considering politics should build their capacity – by that I mean acquiring skills and knowledge.
“You must be fit and a fast learner. It helps to have other languages and be conscious of social issues.
“I do believe that if we can show that we’re competent then we won’t be rejected by voters. I try to be honest – that’s difficult but it’s important.
“I think women are less corrupt than men. We support each other, that’s what we do, while men don’t like to share.
“My career has helped me meet many people and learn of different issues. (She spoke to The Jakarta Post while leading a five person-team from the DPR Commission V111 to New Zealand to look at disaster management and social issues.)
“For example in NZ I’ve been impressed by how minorities, like the Maori, are treated with respect and the way that equality is handled, particularly as we have so many ethnic groups in Indonesia.” (The treaty of Waitangi signed in 1840 between the British and Maori, is still used to determine disputes.)
Political ambitions? “I don’t want to be president, but I would like to be a minister for health or social welfare. But only after I’ve built up my experience so I can handle the bureaucracy – they’ve had 30 years experience.
“I wouldn’t want to have portfolios in women’s empowerment and child protection – they’re just not effective.”
How do her religious beliefs fit with being a woman politician? “The principles of Islam have to be implemented in daily life. The Koran encourages women to go into public life.
“The faithful man and woman should go hand-in-hand together in worship. As Muslims we have an obligation to improve society. Politics is for everyone.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 25 July 2012)