Jakarta - Looking at the percentage of women who competed for national parliamentary seats in Indonesia's April 2009 election – 35.25 percent of 11,301 candidates – one can conclude that the right of women to actively participate in Indonesia's political life is guaranteed. When it comes to voting and running for public office this might be true but, collectively, Indonesian women still have a long way to go when it comes to shaping the public policies that affect their lives.
Women's organisations are changing this reality with voter education programmes that address political, cultural and, perhaps most importantly, religious issues. Since 1999, organisations have trained women to exercise their political rights so they can improve the efficacy of their participation in politics.
Due to my own involvement in the Muslim women's organisation Muslimat, I have come to realise that many Indonesian women are unaware of the potential impact they can have on the quality of Indonesian democracy.
Most importantly, they lack the knowledge and tools to exercise their political rights and therefore choose to remain silent. As a result, they are often uninvolved in the legislation that affects their rights and are underrepresented in decision-making bodies that affect their broader interests.
But a lack of knowledge is not the only factor keeping them from fully participating in the country's politics; cultural and religious values play a role as well. Religion, including Islam, has been used to perpetuate strict segregation of men and women in the public and private domains. Politics have long been considered a male domain and women are often discouraged from participating.
As a result, voter education programmes for women – particularly training conducted by Muslim women's organisations – not only emphasise the idea that political rights are human rights and that women's experiences are important in public policymaking, but also that Islam, practiced by the majority of Indonesians, guarantees women's political rights in their fullest sense.
In chapter 60 of the Qur'an, God commands Prophet Muhammad to accept the oaths of allegiance of the women in Madina who participated in the Aqaba meeting preceding his move from Mecca to Medina. This passage demonstrates the significance that Islam places on women's voices. The Prophet's assent to grant his female cousin, Ummu Hani, authority to protect a defeated enemy soldier on the day he returned to Mecca also shows that women's voices and actions are valued.
The Qur'an encourages both men and women to discuss affairs that affect their lives through a public consultative mechanism, known as shura. Islam sees women as legitimate parties in shaping decisions related to public life. It even states that Muslim women and men are partners to each other in enjoining good and preventing injustice (Qur'an 9:71).
With this religious support, numerous Muslim women who were at first reluctant to participate in politics dared to join political parties and become nominees for legislative, provincial, regional or municipal assemblies. Some have even competed for leadership of their respective political parties at the regional level. Guided by Islamic values, these female nominees are committed to changing society in a positive way.
These passages also provide justification to feminists and Muslim women's organisations to improve women's participation in politics; monitor policies and regulations that restrict and violate women's rights; and propose regulations that advance women's equality in all sectors.
With official results of the election released this past weekend, women will occupy 15 percent of total legislative seats. Although limited, this participation is a step in the right direction and helps to set an example and motivate other women to become more involved in politics. Voter education programmes that address the obstacles to greater female participation and provide religious justification for women's empowerment will help ensure that this participation is also effective when it comes to shaping policy.
* Siti Musdah Mulia is chairperson of the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP), professor of Islamic studies at Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic University in Jakarta as well as one of the recipients of the 2007 US Secretary of State's International Women of Courage Awards. This article is part of a series on Muslim women and their religious rights written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 12 May 2009, www.commongroundnews.org
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