It was an admirable goal: In 2004, bowing to pressure from women's groups, Indonesia began requiring all political parties to field 30 percent women candidates. But it hasn't quite worked out as planned. In Wednesday's parliamentary election, candidates include a former Miss Indonesia, five former models, at least eight actresses, and nine singers. Googling their names may bring up "leaked" nude photos, swimsuit or lingerie ads, and softcore sex scenes. The Indonesian parties that recruit these sexy celebrity women as their candidates believe that their famous faces and public notoriety will win votes in a country where name recognition is low and campaign posters remain the best way of reaching voters.
Marketing women's sexuality isn't new in Indonesian politics; as Yenni Kwok notes, scantily-clad singers and dancers are a fixture at many Indonesian campaign events. But the recruitment of sexy celebrities to stand for political office takes the sexist logic of Indonesian politics one step further. According to Hana Satriyo, an expert in gender and politics at the Asia Foundation, the tactic only undermines gender parity goals in politics.
While few actually end up in office, the notoriety of the "sexy" candidates casts a pall over efforts by serious female candidates to participate in politics. Young women campaigning for parliamentary seats -- especially if they're attractive -- may find themselves lumped together with their celebrity counterparts, regardless of their actual levels of expertise and education. Thomas Power, whose research at the Australian National University focuses on Indonesian political parties, writes that celebrity candidates have gained a reputation as "low-quality nominees who have profited from sex appeal at the expense of more ‘worthy' parliamentary aspirants."
As a result, it's easy for the public to dismiss the quota system and write off women candidates as mere tokens in the political process. But, according to the women who run for office, the quota is not the problem.
Lathifa Al-Anshori is a pretty, 22-year-old, former TV reporter turned parliamentary candidate. Other candidates representing her party, the Nasdem Party, include two former models, three formers singers, and an actress. While her candidacy seems to fit the trend, she doesn't think it's necessarily bad thing. Without gender quotas, she argues, women wouldn't have a chance to participate in politics. "With this quota, the government is seriously saying to us, ‘This is your chance, women,'" she said, in an interview.
Since the quotas have been in place, the proportion of women in parliament has increased from 11 to 18 percent. Al-Anshori hopes that after Wednesday's election that figure will rise to 30 percent -- regardless of whether they're celebrities or not.
Writing off celebrity candidates as shallow or unfit for office, Satriyo argues, misses a crucial point about the entry of such women into Indonesian politics: Some rise to the occasion and perform well in office. Without the quota system, they might not have had the chance. Rieke Diah Pitaloka and Nurul Arifin, now parliamentarians, were both actresses who transformed themselves into well-respected politicians. "They reached out to their constituents, reached out to civil society, and tried to understand the important issues," Satriyo said. She credits such women for "seizing the opportunity provided by the quota to make a difference...We need these kinds of women in parliament to make changes."
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