This article was published in thejakartapost.com with the title
As of 2019, there are 131 women members of the United States congress, the largest
number ever. More significant perhaps is the fact that it is from among these women that
the sharpest and most critical voices on issues of social justice and democracy have
emerged. Two currently popular names are Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC) and Ilhan Omar.
Their voices and actions have sparked a new hope among those wishing for social progress
and change. These two women also represent a sector of society that has long been under-
represented in the mainstream institutions of the American political system. At 29, AOC is
the youngest ever member of the US Congress. She is of Hispanic background; while she has
served on various Democratic Party campaigns, her last paid job has been as a waiter and
barista. She is not only a member of the Democratic Party but also of the more activist
Meanwhile Omar came to the US as a child. Her family was refugees from Somalia. She
became a US citizen at age 17, studied political science at university and threw herself into
politics. Her activism was not through the electoral party. She was also, for example,
Director of Policy Initiatives of the Women Organizing Women Network. She was the first
Muslim woman of African descent to be elected to the US congress and with a vote of 78
percent in her electorate in Minnesota, defying Islamophobic attacks against her. She is the
first woman in the US congress to wear a hijab but has not been known as a politician using
or profiling religion.
These two women are not products of the Democratic Party machine. In fact, they have
both had to fight and defeat the party’s established leaderships in order to be elected. Still,
even after election, they are in constant conflict with that establishment.
If they are not products of the party machine, where have they come from? Over the last
several years, a series of quite militant social movements have been emerging. These
include the Black Lives Matter movement protesting the killings of black people by police.
There has also been the Me Too movement protesting sexual harassment of women by men
in positions of power.
Since the presidential election of Donald Trump there have been big women’s marches
against misogyny. There are movements in solidarity with migrants and refugees. It is out of
an atmosphere created by this mounting activism that we see figures emerge such as AOC
and Omar. The election of 131 women is also a product of this atmosphere, even if not all
these women are progressive, and some even reactionary. The election of Omar, who has
spoken out with great courage against the US intervention in Venezuela and against US
support for Israel’s repressive policies against Palestine, as well as support for refugee
rights, free education and increase in wages in the US, marks her out as not simply as
“representative of women” but of new more radical voices. AOC’s campaign for a “green
New Deal” to fight global warming, and also for a free education and better wages puts her
in the same category.
Here in Indonesia, the women’s movement has a long history, dating back to the turn of the
In 1928, the first Indonesian Women’s Congress was organized. There were many active
women’s political organizations of different ideologies. The biggest was easily the Gerakan
Wanita Indonesia (Gerwani) that was active up until 1965, when it was suppressed with the
rest of the Left. Between the 1970s and 2000s, activity in support of women’s rights
continued, both under and after the New Order regime. In more recent times, there have
been gains in legislation requiring affirmative action in favor of women. Most recently,
General Elections Law No. 7/2017 requires 30 percent of a party’s candidates to be women,
and that there must be at least one woman in every three candidates listed.
This has resulted in some increase in the number of women in legislative bodies, and there
are also now well-known women cabinet ministers. Vocal lawmakers have included Rieke
Diah Pitaloka, Rahayu Saraswati Djojohadikusumo and Eva Sundari.
However, over time their energies have been drained by the low cultural level of elite
politics, with its endemic corruption, policy free competition for spoils and a heavy machine
bureaucracy. The AOC and Ilhan Omar phenomenon has not arrived in Indonesia yet. There
are even still massive problems in getting the bill for the elimination of sexual violence
passed. The affirmative action policy is there to ensure women’s participation. Quotas,
however, cannot guarantee commitment to progressive policies. In these last weeks of the
election campaign, street posters calling for support for women election candidates can be
seen everywhere as are various social media postings.
However, the rhetoric of these candidates can hardly be distinguished from that of the men
and, more importantly, there are no signs of critical voices challenging the Establishment on
issues such as wages policy, LGBT rights, environmental issues, human rights violations
immunity or even campaigning for the passing of the above bill. The Establishment bears
down on them so hard even to the extent of them ending up changing their dress: women
who never usually wore the hijab are suddenly wearing them.
One lesson we can perhaps learn from the US experience, which is probably not unique, is
that the answer is not some kind of technocratic reform of the political parties. The answer
is for more of us, and especially the youth, to be building active social and political
movements in the streets and workplaces.
A start has, of course, already been made. The brave and consistent militancy of the
Kamisan (Thursday) rallies over many years in many towns demanding actions on various
human rights violations including the disappeared activists from 1998 is one great example.
There have been also women’s marches in many towns. Labor unions, including those
whose members are mostly women, have been more active. Solidarity with LGBT rights has
been more visible. These movements, however, have not reached the necessary scale
required to truly change the political atmosphere, to impact on our deadened political
culture. Whether the aim is simply to increase women’s involvement in real politics to
reflect the fact that Indonesia’s 266 million people are divided almost 50-50 between men
and women — let alone to strengthen a culture of anti-sexism and social justice generally,
the solution will not be found with tinkering further with election laws or regulation or
NGOs trying to re-educate party politicians. The energy of Kamisan, of the Women’s
Marches, needs to explode onto the national stage. Laws defending freedom of expression
and organization protect our rights, but only our collective energy will make them real.