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Indonesia's Cabinet, Female Power and Australia



By Ruby Hamad

28 Oct 2014

Yesterday, recently elected Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, unveiled his new cabinet. Out of a cabinet of 34 in the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation, eight appointees are women.

While this is by no means a veritable paradise of gender equality, it once again serves to highlight just how poor gender inclusivity and representation is in Australian politics. When Prime Minister Tony Abbott revealed his own cabinet last year, the inclusion of just one woman, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, led to many jokes of the "Even Afghanistan has more women in cabinet" variety.

Not only do both Afghanistan and Indonesia have more diverse gender representation in the upper echelons of power, but, as academic and religious scholar Reza Aslan recently noted, seven Muslim democracies have elected women as their heads of state.

This, however, does not mean women are more equal in Muslim societies. Rather, it shows the complicated relationship between gender oppression and political representation, and highlights the dangers of using only one index by which to measure gender inequality. The rise of some of the Muslim women leaders, for instance, was in some cases more a result of nepotism than gender equality.

Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto, for example, was regarded largely as an extension of her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Like other female leaders in overtly patriarchal South Asian societies such as India's Indira Gandhi and Bangladesh's Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, Bhutto attained power following the death of a close male relative.

In the immediate aftermath of her father's execution following a military coup in 1979, Pakistan's Peoples Party assigned a "safe" seat in a deliberate move aimed at keeping his legacy going.

I'm not saying that Muslim women can only achieve political success in these circumstances. Indeed, other Muslim women such as Turkey's Tansu Ciller gained power in vastly different circumstances. What I am saying is political success neither negates nor proves gender oppression. What it does show is that women in all societies can - and do - navigate sexist structures in their everyday life to varying degrees of success.

In the case of South Asian countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia, these women's success was made possible by their family connections, which as CBS reports, is "no coincidence in a corner of the world where family often dictates one's occupation, be it as a street sweeper or a prime minister."

In other words, religion is not the only factor that leads to either the oppression or the success of women. We associate Islam with the most egregious abuses of women's rights. Indeed, despite the fact that Islam has a long history of women leaders, going right back to Aisha, one of Mohammed's wives who often fought alongside him in battle (and indeed led at least one battle of her own), Muslim countries are regularly over-represented in the annual "worst places to be a woman" lists.

However, also as noted by Reza Aslan, what we often put down to religion is actually regional influence. Indeed Muslim women in Malaysia and Indonesia (with the possible exception of the increasingly fundamentalist Aceh province) enjoy far more freedom than their Middle Eastern and African counterparts.

And yet, even in the most repressive Middle Eastern societies, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, women are able to achieve career heights that western women struggle to attain. Saudi Arabia has seen a recent surge in women entrepreneurs, who run their own successful businesses even as they need their husband's permission to travel. Meanwhile, Iranian women make up the majority of law students and work as lawyers and judges, who must nonetheless submit to enforced dress regulations in their own courtrooms.

In other words, the Muslim world, like the West, and indeed the rest of the world remains a contradictory place for women.

Earlier this year, Mariam al-Mansouri became the UAE's first female fighter pilot and led a strike against Islamic State. Regarded as a hero by Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE's ambassador the US who boasted about her on American television, she was also referred to as "Boobs on the ground" by Fox News presenter Eric Bolling.

The derisive sexualisation of al-Mansouri by a white, male media personality highlights how Western societies also marginalise and dismiss women, even as they revile Muslim countries for doing the same. The West is no less sexist, it's just that the sexism manifests differently. The western tendency to conflate sexualisation with empowerment mistakenly assumes that because women are not legally restricted in their clothing choices or their everyday movements, then our liberation is complete.

Unlike Muslim women, we can wear what we like, hence we are free and equal and therefore the lack of women's representation in parliament isn't a failing of our political system or a sign of continued oppression, but due to "merit". When questioned about the single woman in his cabinet, Tony Abbott claimed to be "disappointed" (as if it wasn't solely his doing) and essentially blamed women for their own exclusion by arguing that if only women were better, then they too would hold more positions of power.

So what do we take away from the fact that yet another Muslim country has more female representation in its cabinet than Australia? While it would be wrong to assume this is automatically a sign of greater gender equality, it is no less of a mistake to dismiss the lack of women in power as unrelated to women's oppression.

Indeed, the more Australia insists - and believes - it is an equal society, the easier it is to mask the deliberate exclusion of women from the corridors of power behind the façade of meritocracy. 

Ruby Hamad is a Sydney-based writer and filmmaker.