Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia


A landmark for Indonesian women in politics

By Kevin W. Fogg, Jun 28 2018 06:31PM

In yesterday's Indonesian regional elections, there was a major landmark for Indonesian women, but it seems to have been largely unnoticed in the press (both foreign and domestic). Khofifah Indar Parawansa, who resigned as Minister of Social Affairs in January 2018 to make her third run at the East Java governor's mansion, was the first woman to come to power as an Indonesian governor by election.

As you can see, I have chosen my words rather carefully there. Khofifah will not be the first female governor in Indonesian history; that honor goes to Ratu Atut Chosiyah, who was first elected Vice-Governor in Banten in 2002, then became governor three years later when her father arranged for the governor to be taken down on corruption charges. Ratu Atut had her own spectacular fall from grace starting in 2013 around a much larger corruption scandal, although this was admittedly after winning re-election in 2006. And, of course, Ratu Atut is not the only woman to have been elected Vice-Governor in Indonesia; there was even a new woman (and a particular research interest of mine) who seems to have been elected yesterday in West Nusa Tenggara.

The difference for Khofifah is that she went straight at the governorship and won it by election. This landmark comes surprisingly late in Indonesian history. Women have been cabinet members since 1946 (Mr Maria Ulfah Santoso), and of course Indonesia had a woman as president (also, notably, because of the resignation of the president and the elevation of the vice-president) starting in 2001 (Megawati Soekarnoputri). Why then has it taken so very long to have a woman elected as governor? Further thoughts at a later time.

Khofifah herself had a very strong run for the governorship of East Java in 2008, in an election lost by the narrowest of margins after multiple rounds of voting and marred by vote tampering allegations. She ran again unsuccessfully in 2013. It seems the third time was the charm.

Her story is also interesting because of the role of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Islamic organization in Indonesia (and perhaps the world). Khofifah is the current head of NU's women's auxiliary, Muslimat NU, although her career since 1992 has been mostly political (first as a member of parliament, then serving as various ministers in national cabinets). As a friend pointed out to me today, her rise to executive leadership in secular politics is a departure for NU, whose kyais had previously been skeptical of women as leaders.

I am struck, though, that the Indonesian press is not at all focused on the major accomplishment for women in politics that Khofifah represents. Instead, all of the focus seems to be on her announced support for Jokowi in next year's presidential election. This is a weakness of the Indonesian press, and I wish that more had an eye on this historic moment for its implications for gender participation in politics.

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The thoughts and opinions presented on this blog do not represent any institutions or other organization with which I am affiliated.  They are mine and mine alone, and should not be copied or reprinted (beyond fair use) without my written permission.  My hope is that these entries will help to further discussion about Southeast Asia, Islamic history, academia in a time of technological change, and other subjects worthy of attention.

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The image above comes from a manuscript of Dala'il al-Khayrat, probably copied in West Sumatra in the first half of the twentieth century and now in the collection of Prof. Bruce B. Lawrence.