Independent but Not

A few days ago one member of Indonesian parliament was invited as a speaker in a conference that focused on Women in Leadership and Politics.  This topic always interests me because somehow I feel as Indonesian woman there are a lot that can be done to improve the position of women in leadership, in politics and generally in the society.  Despite the fact that Indonesian women are beginning to hold powerful positions, there are others who have been stripped off their rights to be independent, to actualise themselves, and to be empowered for circumstantial reasons or for unwritten rules or for some old regulations that are not valid today.

I had the chance to meet her and have a brief but fruitful chat.  She told me about her journey of how she became a politician.  Never in her mind she would be one, but when the issue of the female gender caught her attention, like me she felt there were a lot that could be done.  She then became an activist, voicing concerns in the area of reproductive health, violence against women, human trafficking (where women and children are often the victim), family planning, women empowerment and gender mainstreaming.  She had an advantage of being an actress with a brain, and when political parties spotted this talent and the value of her popularity as an actress, they proposed to her and she didn’t waste her time to take that proposal.  So now she is a parliament member and a spokesperson for her party.

She said that Indonesia has often been a study case by many developing countries as well as developed countries in the issue of women empowerment.  Gender activists played a role in the passing of a legislation that require 30% women in parliament, in the cabinet, in political parties and in member of parliament candidatures.  Why 30%?  Before I left my job, I was the unofficial gender balance champion in my company.  Being the gender balance champion, I learned that research shows that for an organisation to work well, a certain degree of diversity my take place, hence 30% of positions in the organisation should be held by women if men is the majority.  However, one should not only use this number as the only determinant for gender balance.  Quality of the people should also be considered and therefore become a determinant of hiring anyone.  The parliament lady I met agreed with me and she claimed that at this stage our parliament is still struggling with that.  Nepotism or family connection is still the reason why most parliament member candidates or most female parliament members are where they are today – not their quality or competency.

That’s not the only thing I learned as a gender balance champion though.  Gender balance is not only about the number, but the bottom line is about giving everyone equal rights to a career opportunity by taking into consideration the life cycle and life stage of both genders.  When men and women enter a professional life in their 20s, both equally perform, but as women hit the 30s where most of them enter marriage life, their career become wobbly while their male counterpart’s career steadily move up.  Successful countries take this fact into consideration and therefore facilitate both men and women to maintain both their career and family life with regulations and facilities that support gender balance notion.

When compared to Myanmar, the number of women in the parliament in Indonesia looks a lot.  Myanmar only has 7 women in the parliament.  Have we really been successful in empowering women though, I asked her.  She said yes, but we still have a lot of homework because even though we have a lot of women in parliament, most of them tend to be passive members.  I told her that I completely agree with her.

In 2009 when an opportunity to meet with the minister of this beloved country came my way, I questioned her with the reasons why our government seemed to care so much with the 30%, without really thinking through the consequences or what worst without preparing facilities that will be required to support this number.  I am happy to see that more and more women are holding such high positions, but on the other hand I question the hiring of women as diplomats because the fact is that after their first post or after the enter a certain life stage called marriage, their priority changed – I am not saying I disagree with the hiring of female diplomats.  Career is no longer a priority, and for those female diplomats who married men with good career, they either quit their diplomatic job or get posted without their husbands.  In most cases they choose the first one.  Seldom would men with good career are willing to give up their career because after all, traditionally, men are the provider.  For those who left their jobs and followed their wives, I give them high respect especially if the manage to get through it till retirement.  That’s the case I have seen, the case that we Indonesians face.  While we have been successful to hire more than 30% of female diplomats (note this is hypothetical number), we forget about the 70% women who have to give up their independence and the rights to self actualisation because they are married to diplomats.  Maybe 70% is over-exaggerating because there are those who still maintain their career the way my mom did.  I wasn’t satisfied with the minister’s answer.

So when I get the chance to talk to the parliament lady, I told her this small fact.  If other countries can fight for the rights of their diplomatic spouses to actualise themselves, to not lose their career, to not lose their dignity, why can’t we?  She was quite surprise when I told her that this is what happened.  We are actually given the options whether to follow or not to follow.  Some have chosen not to follow but in most cases, those whose wives did not follow their husbands, have their career is stuck somewhere.  Though life is about making choices, most women put family first, but women these days want to have both family and a good career.  Why can’t we have that?  What worst is that not only we are stripped of our rights for self actualisation, we are often stripped of our rights to have an opinion or to be an individual.

I honestly envy my fellow spouses from other countries, the United States for example.  Though he followed his wife around, he was facilitated to have a career.  Though she is not a working spouse, but she is free to be herself, to have her own social activities, and to maintain her individuality.  I don’t deny that I am jealous.  While Indonesia has been independent for 68 years now, some of our practices disable us to be independent.  We have been too preoccupied with filling the quota of 30% without thinking about how to ensure the 30% have the quality required, the impact of the 30% and the facilities that we need to provide to support the 30%.  I don’t think we have completely understand the notion of gender balance.

If the parliament lady started her journey of becoming an activist, this blog may be a journey for me to raise my concern and one day to be heard, that it is about time for us to lift the barrier of old-fashioned mindset.

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