Ready to lead. Many Acehnese women are willing to play public roles,
but are Acehnese men ready to accept them?
Many Acehnese men have difficulty in accepting women as leaders, even though women have played an important role historically. During the seventeenth century, when Aceh was at its zenith as a centre of trade and Islamic civilisation, the kingdom of Aceh Darussalam had several female rulers who were respected and admired. Famous religious scholars like Abdurrauf al-Singkili and Nuruddin Ar-Raniry publicly supported the rule of those queens. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some Acehnese women continued to hold leadership positions, even as local leaders or uleebalang (hereditary chiefs). One of the most famous leaders of resistance to the Dutch colonialists, Cut Nyak Dhien, was a woman.
This situation seems to have changed since the early twentieth century. Now few women play a public or political leadership role, and many men believe that such a state of affairs is only natural and right. The new hostility to women playing leadership roles was dramatised recently, in late 2010, when a controversy in Bireuen, a district in northern Aceh, attracted worldwide attention. The speaker of the district legislature demanded that the bupati (district head) replace a female camat (subdistrict head) he had appointed in the Plimbang sub-district. The speaker, Ridwan Muhammad of the Partai Aceh (Aceh Party), gave as his reason that Islam does not permit a woman to be a leader. What has happened to change Acehnese attitudes to women leaders? And what are women in Aceh doing to reassert their leadership role?
Only as deputies
Aceh is renowned for its devotion to Islam and its people proudly call their land the ‘verandah of Mecca’. At a recent count its population was 2,025,826 women and 2,005,763 men. Even though women slightly outnumber men, this is not reflected in their representation in the provincial parliament nor the bureaucracy, where their presence is minimal. For instance, women won only four out of 69 of seats in the provincial parliaments elected in the general elections of 2009. At the level of departmental head in the provincial bureaucracy, only one woman was appointed out of several dozen possible such positions. As might be expected, the sole female head was given a social services responsibility, as head of the agency for women’s empowerment and child protection.
At lower levels of local government there are currently no women bupati, or district heads, although in the 2006 local election for Banda Aceh municipality a woman was elected as deputy mayor. The picture is the same right down to the sub district and village level. Very few women are heads of sub-districts. Of more than 6,000 villages in Aceh there are fewer than 10 women village heads.
When the speaker of the Bireuen legislature called for the removal of the female sub-district head he used the argument that it was un-Islamic to have a woman as a public leader. He is not the only person in Aceh to hold these views. Nor is it only uneducated village folk who think this way. Even postgraduate students I have taught at Banda Aceh’s major Islamic university have told me that they believe that it is not appropriate for a woman to be a governor or a district head. At most, they say, it is acceptable for women to hold deputy positions, as vice-district head, or vice-governor.
I also often encountered similar views during special leadership programs which were held as part of the post-tsunami recovery effort from 2005. Most of these programs were organised and funded by various international agencies, such as UNIFEM, Oxfam, The Asia Foundation, and so on. They aimed to encourage broad social and political participation in communities that were rebuilding themselves in the aftermath of the great natural disaster that had been visited upon them, and some incorporated specific capacity building programs for women to strengthen their political skills. Yet during discussions about the capacity of women to be village heads or members of village councils, some program participants (mainly men) totally rejected such ideas. They argued that women are not suitable as leaders and should not be active in politics.
The widely-held belief in Aceh that women do not have the capacity to serve as leaders is linked to the belief that women’s primary responsibility is to take care of the home, family and domestic chores. There is still a widespread attitude that the division is ‘public men, private women’, even though things have never been this simple. This kind of attitude has discouraged many women from actively participating in politics or pursuing leadership roles.
There is a widespread attitude of ‘public men, private women’, even though things have never been this simple
Many Acehnese also say that a woman’s reproductive functions of pregnancy, giving birth, and breastfeeding will interrupt her public duties as a leader. In reality, most women who engage in politics and leadership are in their forties and have finished raising their families. Some people also say that it is not possible to appoint women as members of the village councils because if the meetings were to be held at night the women would be unable to attend as they should not go out after dark. These are some of the socio-cultural barriers faced by women in the patriarchal society that Aceh has become.
Loss of traditional status
How did these attitudes arise, given the history of female leadership in Aceh? The transformation of Aceh from a traditional peasant society to a modern one has contributed to the marginalisation of women. In Aceh’s rural villages, women were responsible for economically productive work. They cultivated the rice fields and managed agricultural work. If a man could not gain an adequate income from work in the village, he would leave and travel elsewhere to seek employment or trade, returning home only few times a year. This tradition meant many women and children were left behind in the village. As a result, women became quite independent, managing the assets of the family and taking charge of the children’s education.
These practices gradually began to disappear through the twentieth century, especially in the more urban and middle class parts of Acehnese society. As women’s responsibilities have become more focused on domestic duties and supporting their husbands, they have become more dependent on their husbands as providers. This situation was reaffirmed by the gender ideology propagated by the New Order regime which held power in Indonesia through the final decades of the twentieth century. The regime presented women as the supporters of their husbands, at home and at work, and as followers not leaders in the political system of the nation.
The growth of modern Islamic schooling has also changed religious perspectives and social attitudes. More restrictive perspectives on women’s roles and status inspired by other social contexts, especially Middle Eastern ones, have been propagated through the education system. The wave of Islamic conservatism that began in the 1980s, which was not confined to Aceh but was also evident elsewhere in Indonesia, has also been influential.
Women in public and in politics
The devastating conflict which consumed Aceh between the late 1970s and 2005 had a lasting impact on the public roles of Acehnese women. While many men were absent from their homes as a result of the war, women had to fill their roles and duties and ensure their family’s survival, often under desperate conditions. It is not surprising that women were among the most tenacious campaigners for peace. They made up the first group to campaign for an end to the conflict through a ‘declaration of peace’ rather than a declaration of independence for Aceh, organising the first Aceh Women’s Congress. This congress was held on 22 February 2000 but it took several more years before peace was negotiated through the Helsinki talks of 2005.
Although women’s groups were not involved directly in the formal peace talks, their roles on the ground to campaign for peace and to solve the conflict were remarkable. Between 16 and 19 June 2005 the second Aceh Women’s Congress was held, reaffirming and strengthening the role of women as agents of peace in Aceh.
Out of the shadows? Women at an election campaign rally in 2009
The idea that women are agents of peace continues to inspire many Acehnese women. At the same time, there has been some formal recognition of the rights of women. Recent examples are the declaration of an Aceh Women’s Rights Charter (Piagam Hak-Hak Perempuan Aceh) in 2008 and the approval of special provincial laws concerning women’s empowerment and protection in 2009. The Law on Governing Aceh (LOGA) which resulted from the 2005 Helsinki peace agreement stipulates that women should make up at least 30 per cent of the newly established (local) political parties. The 2005 peace deal also allowed Acehnese to establish local political parties to compete for legislative seats at the local level – the only place in Indonesia where such a provision exists – and many people believed this would provide new opportunities for women. PICTURE
Moreover, in the lead up to the 2009 legislative elections, many national and international agencies that had been working in Aceh to assist its recovery from the conflict and the tsunami also began to run programs designed to empower and strengthen the political participation of women. These included not only helping women to understand the electoral process so that they could be smart voters, but also equipping women candidates with the necessary skills, knowledge and strategies to be successful campaigners. Such groups organised workshops on political education for women, strategies women could use to run in and win elections, and fund raising.
As a result of these new opportunities, many people believed that the 2009 elections would represent a significant step forward for women’s involvement in the political process in Aceh. And there certainly were some new initiatives. For instance, a group of women set up PARA (Partai Aliansi Rakyat Aceh, Aceh People’s Alliance Party) which was widely recognised as being a women’s political party. The leader of the party was a woman and PARA chose symbols and colours that could be easily identified as feminine or strongly associated with women. The establishment of a women’s party created considerable debate. Some argued that men and women should be working in partnership for the betterment of society, including on the advocacy of women’s issues. However, PARA’s appeal was not able to be tested because it did not pass the verification procedures of the General Election Committee and so did not qualify to participate in the election.
Yet many women did run as candidates or play roles in campaign teams, with many of them bringing a distinctive style of political campaigning. The following are just some examples which I know of personally, of women campaigning for other women. One woman used the traditional practice of silaturrahmi (friendly visits), going from one household to another to persuade her neighbours and fellow villagers to vote for the candidate she supported. In another case, an influential woman in a village in the western part of Aceh used her status to campaign for her preferred candidate in the election of the district head. That candidate did win the majority of votes in the village but failed to get a majority at the district level. Both these women campaigners used their talent for soft politics on behalf of other women. If they had been asked to stand for election themselves, they would probably have resisted.
These women campaigners used their talent for soft politics on behalf of other women
Of particular note has been a growing interest among female religious scholars, known in Aceh as teungku inong, from traditional Islamic schools to take part in politics. The establishment of local political parties has provided a space for them to enter the political arena, and some stood as candidates in the 2009 general election, though few gained a large number of votes.
Overall, despite the efforts of many women, the 2009 elections confirmed the general picture that had arisen over previous decades: official politics in Aceh remains a male-dominated domain. The number of women in the provincial legislature did not increase, with 4 out of 69 representing well under ten per cent, and with the result being no better (and sometimes even worse) at the district level. In the districts of West and North Aceh, and in Banda Aceh, for example, only one woman was elected. Here and there were minor successes, however: for example, in Subulussalam the speaker of the district parliament is a woman.
The next generation
Acehnese women have a recent history of conflict and trauma. Besides war and natural disaster, there has been increasing urbanisation and modernisation bringing major changes to the social structure. These processes have unwittingly undermined women’s independence and economic power. Ironically, the disasters they have suffered have also brought national and international programs focused on women’s empowerment and education. Reforms have opened spaces in the political arena, and women are actively trying to fill those spaces.
Yet although history furnishes many examples of effective female leaders in Aceh, not everybody in contemporary Acehnese society believe that it is appropriate for women to serve in public life. Both men and women in Aceh want a better future for their children. But just what roles their daughters will play are still being negotiated.
Eka Srimulyani (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a lecturer at the Institute for Islamic Studies Banda Aceh. She is currently a post doctoral research fellow of KNAW (Royal Academy of Arts and Science) in the Netherlands and is affiliated to the International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden University.
This article is part of the Women and Islam feature edition.