The low level of female representation in leadership positions in Padang is compounded by a trend toward conservative understandings of Islam. Photo by Indi and Rani Soemardjan.

The problem of low numbers of women in leadership positions in West Sumatra is compounded by a trend toward conservative understandings of Islam in the province. This sign reads: “You Are Now Entering West Sumatra, an Anti-Vice Area.” Photo by Indi and Rani Soemardjan.



Despite the efforts of outgoing legislators last year, Indonesians will soon have the opportunity to exercise their electoral rights again when they vote for local leaders in 266 provinces, districts and cities on 9 December. Unfortunately, voters in West Sumatra will find that their choices are limited almost exclusively to men.


In a recent visit to this devoutly Muslim province I was struck by the many huge posters of candidates erected on the roadside. These were not limited to the capital, Padang, but stretched from the coastal area of Pariaman up into the highlands. They were all men, with most prominently displaying symbols of Islamic identity like the peci, or black cap. Many displayed other signifiers of masculinity, such as a bushy moustache or the large gemstone rings (batu akik) that have recently become a national trend.


Febby Dt Bangso2These men will run for district head and deputy district head positions in 13 districts, as well as for governor and vice governor of West Sumatra. The regional branch of the General Election Commission (KPUD) reported there is just one woman among the 74 district leadership candidates, equivalent to a female participation rate of just 1.4 per cent. The sole woman, Rahmi Brisma, is competing for the deputy district head position in Bukit Tinggi.


According to General Elections Commission (KPU) data compiled by the Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem), 116 women have registered to compete for 1,584 leadership positions in 262 regions nationwide: 54 women are running for regional head positions and 62 for deputy positions. This is equivalent to an overall female participation rate of just 7.3 per cent.


Although the numbers are still small, Indonesia has seen a greater number of women become local leaders at both the district and provincial level than was ever the case under Soeharto. This was made possible by the introduction of Law No. 32 of 2004 on Local Government.


Before the introduction of this Law, local legislative bodies (DPRD) were responsible for electing local leaders. As women were largely excluded from the male-dominated power structures in political parties and local legislatures, only five were elected to local leadership positions between 1998 and 2005. From 2005 to 2014, however, 26 women were elected as local leaders: 18 in Java and 8 outside Java.


The fact that there are so few women competing in West Sumatra runs counter to popular perceptions of the high status of Minangkabau women. The major ethnic group in the province, the Minangkabau are considered the world’s largest matrilineal society. Minangkabau adat (tradition or custom) is often described as democratic and egalitarian and women enjoy a tradition of matrilineal land inheritance, leadership privileges in clan and kinship systems, and have a long history of contribution to local agriculture. Their society’s key values are embodied in the mythical queen Bundo Kanduang.


Explaining the low number of female candidates, a male lecturer from Imam Bonjol State Institute for Islamic Studies (IAIN) in Padang argued that women in West Sumatra are not interested in running for public office. “In Minang culture,” he said, “women are already leaders in the household; they own the house, the rice field, and the property of the clan, and they are always asked to have their say in matters pertaining to the clan. Women do not see any urgency to become local leaders.”


Legislative elections in West Sumatra have delivered mixed results for women. In the 2009 General Elections, for example, only three women were elected as members of the provincial DPRD. This is equivalent to about 6.6 per cent representation, well below the national average for the 2009 elections of 16 per cent. In 2014, seven women were elected to the West Sumatra DPRD, equivalent to 10.8 per cent representation (10 seats were added to the provincial DPRD in 2014), compared to the nationwide average of 15.8 per cent.


Despite the low number actually elected, 37 per cent of the candidates in the West Sumatra DPRD were women. The fact that West Sumatra easily surpassed the Electoral Commission’s 30 per cent quota for female candidates seems to contradict cultural arguments that Minang women are not interested in public office, even if they find it hard to be elected.


The failure of women to win local leadership positions is particularly concerning in light of a trend of growing conservatism in the practice of Islam in the province. West Sumatra is one of six Indonesian provinces that have introduced regional regulations (or perda) based on Islamic precepts. The first “shari’a-inspired” regional regulation was introduced in 2001, and there have been 27 more since then. Local leaders firmly believe that their adat (which is strongly influenced by Islam) has been corrupted by modern influences and see these Islamic regional regulations as the solution.


But as has happened elsewhere in Muslim-majority societies, an emphasis on Islam as the solution to “moral illnesses” and injustice has led to women being targeted and placed at the centre of the problem. Many of the regional regulations in West Sumatra, for example, have concentrated on correcting women’s dress.


Typifying the views of many West Sumatran men, a religious leader from the prominent traditional Islamic organisation Perti (Persatuan Tarbiyah Islamiyah) described economic development and democracy as negative influences on the province. “Women are more independent, they have their own jobs and earn money, with some even earning more than their husbands,” he said. “Because of this women have lost respect for their husbands and it is against what Islam teaches us.”


There is much work still to be done to ensure that Minangkabau women do not remain consigned by cultural or religious arguments to the sidelines of politics. Capable women leaders will be best placed to effectively represent women’s interests, and they should keep in mind the significant contributions of Minangkabau women who went before them, like nationalist hero Rasuna Said, one of the first female politicians, or Rahmah El Yunusiah, the founder of the first modern Islamic educational institution for girls.


Minangkabau women will also need to build a stronger women’s movement and work closely with political parties to ensure that they are given the space they deserve. And they will need support from academia and civil society so that they can competently perform their duties when they are successful in winning office.


With the situation as it stands, men are attempting to define what is good for Minangkabau women based only on their own interpretation of Islamic teachings. Do Minangkabau women want to see local leaders in West Sumatra follow their counterparts in Aceh and introduce even stricter rules limiting women’s mobility? They may have little choice if they cannot win a voice in local government.


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