The campaign of Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno was backed by a range of Islamist groups that led the rallies against outgoing Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. Photo by Reno Esnir for Antara.


Anies Baswedan will be the next governor of Jakarta, after he won the second-round run-off election last week. His candidacy was supported by Prabowo Subianto’s Gerindra Party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), and had the backing of a range of Islamist groups that instigated the massive demonstrations against incumbent Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. His running mate, Sandiaga Uno, recently revealed that he contributed Rp 108 billion (AU$10.8 million) to the winning campaign.


It was the most polarised local election Indonesia has witnessed in its two decades of electoral democracy. Indonesian Muslim society is deeply divided between those groups whose political actions are largely based on religious conviction rather than candidates’ policies, and the secular, progressive Muslims who support pluralism and democratic values.


Much has been written on this topic, including how the massive public campaign to reject the outgoing governor, the Christian and ethnic Chinese Ahok, will define the future of Indonesian Islam and politics.


One thing missing from most post-election analyses, however, is what the election means for Indonesian women. Many Indonesian women participated in the demonstrations against Ahok in November and December 2016, which were led by the notorious Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). It was common to see photos on social media showing groups of Muslim women wearing Arab-style outfits and holding banners urging fellow Muslims not to vote for a non-Muslim.


Aside from pressing the government to send Ahok to prison for his allegedly blasphemous statement, the demonstrations placed overwhelming moral pressure on mainstream Muslims – those who did not support the protests were depicted as less Muslim for not acting to “defend” their religion. Ahok’s trial is only now reaching its conclusion.


What does this tell us about women in Indonesian politics? Many observers were startled by the fact that women would support a candidate backed by groups such as FPI, the Islamic Community Forum (FUI) and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI). Did these women understand that these were the same groups that have been at the forefront of efforts to regulate Indonesian women’s mobility and sexuality, how they should behave and how they should be treated? How could these women support – even indirectly – rhetoric inciting violence or discrimination, two things women have always fought against for themselves?


Interestingly, several prominent women activists and Muslim feminists supported Baswedan. The position of women’s rights activists and Muslim feminists in Baswedan’s corner seemed contrary to their goals for equality and women’s rights. Their mere presence within the ranks of that campaign arguably lent credibility to the conservative agenda among mainstream Muslims. It was made all the more shocking by Baswedan’s close association with Prabowo, who is implicated in rights abuses occurring around the political transition in 1998 and projects a version of militarised masculinity that many women activists blame for making women the primary victims during that time.


Though there is little suggestion that Baswedan will seek to implement an explicitly Islamic agenda, his win has certainly boosted the conservative groups that backed his candidacy. They will continue to push to make their voices heard. According to Malaysian Muslim feminist Zainah Anwar, when Islamists have influence over politics, women’s roles and status, both in the private and public spheres, are at the centre of the battleground.


Women should be encouraged to be politically active, and public engagement with politics and democratic discourse can take many forms. But expecting to have a dialogue with hard-liners and conservatives is wishful thinking. Egyptian Muslim feminist Nawal El Saadawi reminds us that “feminists and progressive people should unite to keep state and church separate, to retain a godless constitution that treats all people equal regardless of their religion, gender, race, class, nationality or so called identity”.  She argues that when confronted by religious populism, feminists must understand that policies based on religious sentiment are destructive and brutal for women. Yet she also warns that it is incredibly difficult to fight those who say: “this is what God tells us to follow”.


The struggle for gender equality and women’s rights in Indonesia has always been about fighting conservative religious doctrine, whether it is Muslim feminists or secular pluralists leading the charge. With Indonesia’s democratic transition at risk of being captured by crude populist forces, an Islamist agenda seems guaranteed to take an even larger share of Indonesian public space. Indonesian feminists need to rebuild connections following the divisive election, consolidate and prepare to be the critical opposition if there is to be any real hope to maintain Indonesia’s claim to “unity in diversity”.


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