Gendered Politics in Asia: Conference report from the politics stream, Women in Asia 2019

Gendered Politics in Asia: Conference report from the politics stream, Women in Asia 2019

The Women in Asia Forum held its biannual conference at UNSW Sydney from 21-23 June 2019. Over 150 presenters shared their research, organised into 40 panels across six streams. This report identifies some of the themes and future research directions arising from the 20 papers presented as part of the ‘Gendered processes of political power’ stream convened by this author.

The conference took place within months of national elections in Asia’s two largest democracies: India and Indonesia. Both countries saw gains in the percentage of women elected to national parliaments, with the highest ever number of women elected as MPs to India’s Lok Sabha (78, or 14%), while Indonesia looks likely to increase their share of women in the People’s Representative Council from the 17% in the 2014-2019 term. While moving in the right direction, the low percentage of women gaining office despite significant efforts to increase their representation speaks to the ongoing relevance of research examining enduring questions of women’s marginalisation in politics, as well as the need for fresh perspectives and new research directions. Papers in this stream took on this challenge.

A large body of literature examines the reasons for, and ways to overcome, women’s under-representation in politics, yet unfortunately these questions remain pertinent and important given the slow rate of progress. The opening panel examined the barriers to women’s political participation and their electoral success in Indonesia. Yumasdaleni and Zarfina Yenti identified social norms, lack of support within political parties, and the high financial cost of success in Indonesia’s ‘money politics’ as important factors. Both presenters also pointed to the elite status of the women elected to the previous People’s Rrepresentative Council (2014-2019): unrepresentative of the diversity of women in the broader population. Furthermore, and as a consequence, women parliamentarians had limited impact in advancing women’s strategic interests once elected.

Several papers and a dedicated panel considered the efficacy of gender quotas (or reservations) to increase the percentage of women elected. In general, quotas were found to be beneficial but not sufficient (Yumasdaleni, Margaret Becker, Sharon Besell, Annabel Dulhanty, Tanya Jakimow). Several papers, most notably Ramona Vijeyarasa’s study of Sri Lanka, showed how the details matter, in particular the way quotas are framed in law. Ambiguous language and the number of different laws pertaining to reservations has resulted in confusion and reduced their efficacy. Devin Joshi and Ryan Goehrung took up the related issue as to how to increase the presence, influence and capabilities of women once they are elected. Their paper, drawing upon data from several countries in Southeast Asia, highlighted that much needs to be done to understand the mechanisms of male dominance in order to provide women greater voice and influence in elected bodies.

Another enduring theme in the literature on women in politics is the influence of family and a women’s life-cycle for their involvement in politics. Motherhood is an inescapable identity for many women politicians, as well as a means to forge a political style. Shuhui Yin analysed the importance of language and the terms used to identify women in her analysis of Chinese feminism in the early twentieth century. Charlene Tan and Becker showed the potential of transgressing models of the ‘ideal’ woman as an important political act. Jakimow and Bessell highlighted how women must often fit political careers around reproductive roles, with many increasing their political activities only after children become independent. In contrast and more hopefully, Vijeyarasa spoke of the potential of women youth in Sri Lanka to play an active role in politics given the right support, and in this case, quotas. An unanswered question worthy of greater attention is whether and how the involvement of female youth in student politics can be a pathway to political careers.

Temporality featured in several papers in other ways too. Bessell, Yenti, and Kurniawati Dewi spoke of the ways historical institutions resonated in contemporary conditions for women in Indonesia, while Tan and Shuhui Yin spoke of the importance of learning from these histories. In contrast to the slowness of social change was the suddenness in which political opportunities are opened up for women, or alternatively closed off. Yumasdaleni found that some women in Indonesia were suddenly asked to contest seats to fulfil gender quotas, while Jakimow found that women were suddenly denied party tickets to contest local elections in India. Women need to be responsive and agile in such shifting circumstances, presenting a challenge for longer term strategic action.

Alongside these enduring issues for women in politics in Asia, the papers collectively identified new challenges, opportunities and research directions. Tarini Bedi’s keynote highlighted the ways women generate ‘social energy’ through their political activities. Jakimow’s paper examined how women party workers generated ‘social energy’ or political capital in India that was appropriated by male party elites. Kristy Ward’s paper examined how political leaders claiming to ‘empower’ women factory workers in Cambodia are often doing so for their own ends. Male political elites benefited from the political momentum that women generated through strikes and labour action, but failed to pursue women factory workers’ interests or to offer women leadership positions within trade unions. These papers draw attention to the need to not only consider how women are excluded from formal politics, but also the ways they are incorporated in adverse ways.  

A final theme relevant not only to women in politics, but also women in academia, is the power of collective action alongside the ways it is disrupted and diffused by male dominated politics. Caitlin Hamilton shared how Vietnamese women bureaucrats found common ground in workshops as part of an action research project; Hyeseon Jeong revealed the ways solidarity arose among Inter-Asian marriage women migrants learning Korean in Vietnam, and; Joyce Wu found that women engineers in Pakistan shared much in common with Australian women researchers working in masculine research spaces.

Divisive politics can stifle this potential for collective action and solidarity. Annabel Dulhanty found that political parties split women self-help groups, preventing them from pursuing their common interests at the village level. The most powerful example came from Kurniawati Dewi’s paper examining how opposing political camps mobilized women through collective imagining of women as ‘Ibu Bangsa’ (mothers of the nation) or ‘emak-emak’ (mothers in Betawi dialect) in the recent Indonesian elections. Feminists in Indonesia are split as to whether such mobilisation is empowering or patronising, as the ensuing discussion demonstrated. Dewi’s paper highlighted the danger for women posed by political strategies that build support bases in ways that divide women as a political force. This overview is not exhaustive of all the wonderful papers presented over two days. I hope I have done justice to those I have represented, and pay tribute to those I have not been able to fit within these themes. All in all, the papers are indicative of the excellent research being done that reflects on, and aims to enhance women’s position in politics, as well as revealing the massive task ahead to reach gender equity.

Tanya Jakimow is an anthropologist and Associate Professor in the ANU's College of Asia and the Pacific. She is currently an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, working on a project examining women’s political labour and pathways to politics in Medan, Indonesia, and Dehradun, India. She collaborates with scholars and practitioners in Indonesia, India and Australia, aiming to make theoretical contributions to the anthropology of politics (in particular gender and politics) and to enhance understandings about the enduring problem of women’s political under-representation.

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