Feb 27, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

Out in front

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Vanessa Johanson talks with Khofifah Indar Parawansa

At 35, Khofifah Indar Parawansa is the youngest cabinet member ever. She is also the only minister ever to give birth in office. Determination and a healthy sense of irony have served her well. 'The word gender is still alien to most people in this country,' she says. 'Recently I was in Central Java, and one of the heads of local government said to me: Oh gender, that means transvestites (banci), doesn't it?' She shrieks with laughter.

'Other people think gender means ladies' business. I get asked to a lot of "ladies' programs" on the sidelines of the main, "men's" activity. But I refuse to go unless all participants come, including the men.'

One of Khofifah's first actions was to change the name to the Ministry of State for Women's Empowerment. She wants to give women more power within a male dominated system. With a small budget and staff, she focuses on lobbying - other sections of government, the media and religious organisations.

'In ministerial coordination and cabinet meetings, we often spend all our time talking about the latest emergencies. It's hard to get gender on the agenda. But the important thing is that gender is taken into account in practice. We go to the ministers individually and ask them: "How many women work in your department, and how are your programs taking into account justice for women?"'

'Women's representation within the bureaucracy is very poor. It is easy for women to enter at the lowest level, but how many women do we have at the top level? One of the main problems is education. Every time there is an opportunity for further education, it is always men who are sent.' Women make up only seven percent of the top three public service echelons.

She also wants more women in parliament. In the 1999 elections, the percentage of women in the national legislature actually fell from 11.62% to 9.82%. 'We are concerned that the new (proposed) general elections act will make matters worse. Women candidates won't get even ten percent under a district rather than a proportional system of voting. Maybe we can learn from the non-government organisations,' she jokes, 'they are mostly led by women!'


'I want women to be the motor of democratisation. With the New Order women's organisations like Dharma Wanita, wellI told them frankly that they were becoming redundant. Their whole focus is the domestication of women. But as part of the government I can't just tell the old women's organisations to close down. I just keep reminding them that the community is very dynamic, that they will be judged by the community.'

Khofifah is a high-speed but persuasive speaker. Legislative change is another priority. 'We are grateful that women's rights were inserted into the constitution last year. The problem is, when people talk about human rights, they often translate "human" as "men". Women and children are not included as humans with rights. There are still about eight acts which have no gender perspective. We are trying to get them changed.'

Attitudes of judges also need to change. Under current law, the maximum sentence for rape is twelve years too low, she says yet judges usually sentence rapists to only seven months. Khofifah proposed to the Minister for Justice and Human Rights that in a rape case, at least one judge must be a woman. He scoffed at the suggestion as discriminatory.

Khofifah faces challenges also within her own ranks. She was an activist in the Indonesian Muslim Student Movement (PMII), then joined the Islamic party PPP, and finally, with Abdurrahman Wahid's encouragement, joined the NU-based National Awakening Party (Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa, PKB) when it was established in 1999. In all of these organisations, she says, there are many men, particularly religious teachers (kiai), who simply do not understand the role of women in politics. 'Even many of the women themselves don't have the confidence to stand for preselection.'

'None of the political parties have a quota system for women candidates. If women are in the leadership, it is usually as treasurer. That is regarded as a housewife's job!'

Khofifah is not afraid of controversy. In September 2000 she agreed with the annulment of the seventeen-year old ban on polygamy for public servants, not because she believed they have a right to practice this Islamic custom, but because 'there doesn't need to be a formal ban on polygamy. Men should be ashamed of themselves and self-aware enough not to want to practice it.'

In July 2000, she called for a moratorium on the export of women as domestic workers, particularly to the Middle East. Around 3- 400,000 women are sent overseas each year. Many are abused and exploited. The moratorium call sparked a furious response from the lucrative industry.

On abortion, Khofifah's views contrast starkly with many feminists. 'The increase in the number of abortions is related to the growing modern lifestyle that encourages promiscuity and drug use among teenagers,' she told the Jakarta Post in February 2000. 'As chief of the National Family Planning Board, I will never recommend abortion as part of the family planning program.' At the time, the Post reported, Khofifah blamed women for resorting to abortion.


Khofifah gave birth to her fourth child in April 2000. Asked the inevitable question of how she juggles packed domestic and public lives, she replies irritably:

'Look, it's a commitment between two people to have children. Men of course cannot give birth. But once the child is born, everything becomes the job of both partners in the relationship. That's how we manage to have time for all that we do we share the responsibility.'

'Still, many women suffer terribly in motherhood,' she adds. With an astounding memory for statistics, Khofifah rattles off the deaths-in-childbirth rates for several countries, concluding: 'In Indonesia our target is a maximum of 125 deaths per 100,000 live births. At the moment it is 373.'

'We cannot end the marginalisation of women without raising their standard of living. Most women live in villages, yet they still don't have access to farm credit programs. There is a policy - unwritten, I think - that loans are only for men. So women are condemned to be farm labourers only. How can they raise their standard of living?'

Prominent women activists are proud of Khofifah's achievements. Says Karlina Leksono, founder of Suara Ibu Peduli: 'Khofifah is serious about structural change for women. She has declared a national program of zero tolerance of violence against women. One practical outcome is the women's crisis centres in hospitals. She is pushing for changes in the penal code for rape and violence against women. I have long been a great admirer of Khofifah.'

Saparinah Sadli, founder and chair of the National Commission on Violence Against Women, who was offered and turned down the position of women's minister, is also full of praise: 'She is very energetic and focused. It's a pity the rest of the government can't keep up with her.'

Vanessa Johanson (vjohanson@eudoramail.com) is an adviser with the Indonesian Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM). This exclusive interview was recorded on 25 January 2001.

Inside Indonesia 66: April-June 2001

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