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Drafting the equality bill: We can’t rely only on religion

Publication Date : 21-06-2012


Probably thanks to Junior Master Chef and other television shows featuring guys in aprons, my nephew makes his own breakfast with perfectly fluffy yellow scrambled eggs. It’s not much — but my nephew is from a typical Indonesian family where men rarely cook. So the young ones will try anything — until we tell them that boys can only do that and girls can only do this. They’ll feel special, hearing about their supposedly preordained characters and destinies: Boys don’t cry and girls can wear pink princess costumes.

Things get dead boring and tiring for the girls, however, when they find they will be ultimately responsible for the kids, the house and their husbands — whether the woman is a CEO or a vendor. Many have resisted this “obligation” — which explains the popular bumper sticker: "Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.”

Today girls just wanna have fun, as the song goes, while they love their babies and the kitchen, try to do their best at work, go everywhere with friends and invest in heaven, too.

By the time Indonesia ratified the UN convention on ending discrimination against women in 1984, women here had taken it for granted that there were enough opportunities out there for everyone. A woman could choose to do anything as long as she kept the household in tip-top shape — the woman’s “double burden”.

Those who argue against the new gender equality bill, though still in the forms of early drafts, may be right in saying the number of divorces will increase once you legalise the notion that men and women are equal.

Moms will no longer think that children with failing grades and smoking pot are all their fault, and will demand that dads share the responsibility. This line of argument insists that gender roles are God’s law — that women struggle to live up to the religious ruling that the man heads the household, and the woman takes care of it, albeit with the maid’s help, is a different story.

It would indeed be a lovely world if we could rely only on the holy books, all of which teach compassion. But frequent reports of domestic abuse have led activists to investigate the root causes — and the fact that the women are having affairs, as one religious expert against the bill argued, was not the top cause. Surveys have found that whatever the cause, women are more often the victims as the less powerful person in the house.

So for all the draft’s reported flaws, we sure could use a law to break down the convention on ending discrimination against women, adopted almost 30 years ago. A contentious clause in one of the drafts entitles women to affirmative action to 30 per cent of positions in all public institutions. How sexist, cry the critics.

Yet consider a recent survey on female bureaucrats which revealed only 22.38 per cent of women among almost 30,000 senior officials across 34 ministries. What’s holding them back? Several departments now have performance and merit-based appraisals, so surely there’s more room for intelligent, hard-working women.

No, said the report of the University of Indonesia’s Centre for Political Studies. The female respondents said requirements for higher positions include long absences from home for training. Believing that household responsibility lies in their hands, many of the women would not even try.

Here’s where the planned law is trying to change things — to transform the private struggle of women into state recognition of fairer relations between men and women, at home and in the public sphere.

It would be sad if the discourse on the bill stops at the arguments based on religion. But it wouldn’t be surprising — for the bill may have been stuck for so long that now it’s a bit of bad timing. In our muddled reformasi (the reform movement of 1998) the Indonesian Ulema Council (top Muslim clerical organisation) has ruled that anything smacking of secularism and liberalism is haram (forbidden for Muslims).

As we can’t really expect wise words from the President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on such touchy matters, it’s up to the public to ensure a healthy debate on the bill, though at the risk of being accused of sacrilege.


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