Women and Politics in Southeast Asia: Navigating a Man’s World
Time & LocationSession 3
Wed 13:30–15:00 Room 1.102
- Theresa Devasahayam Mahidol University
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- A Matrilineal Society’s Influence on the Accessibility of Women in Politics: Minangkabau Women Missing in Indonesian Politics Lina Knorr Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
The Minangkabau, an ethnic minority in Indonesia, is famous for their matrilineal – by some even described as matriarchal – system. Despite the conflicting aspects that outsiders detest to their social system, often hereby referring to the complicated relationship between the matrilineal customary law (adat) and Islam, the Minangkabau have found ways to peacefully assemble adat, Islam and the Indonesian political order. Minangkabau women are known for the powerful status in Indonesia and beyond, mainly due to the matrilineal inheritance system at play, which increases the financial independence of women in the area. This power, however, does not seem to transfer into an extensive representation of women in the political arena. This has raised questions in the past as Minangkabau women have been highly represented in other male-dominated spheres, such as academia. Why are women, in a female-centered society, largely absent from the political arena? Does this transfer to a lack of female representation from decision-making in general? Or is the power of Minangkabau women restricted to the private sphere?
- TBA Andrea Fleschenberg dos Ramos Pinéu Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
- The Triple Burden: Politics and the Competing Realities of Singaporean Women Theresa Devasahayam Singapore University of Social Sciences
The paper argues that although the door leading to the world of politics may not be closed to women, nevertheless they struggle with deciding whether or not to enter the domain, not because of their lack of capacity or viewing this domain as an arena belonging only to men, but because of competing demands placed on them by dominant gender norms positing their primary role as caregiver. The paper speaks to this very issue faced by women political candidates in Singapore. In spite of the efforts of the dominant party as well as opposition parties to recruit women political party candidates, narratives reveal that women have not had significant success in this regard over the years. In the author’s interviews with women political leaders and potential candidates, a critical obstacle found that women faced in whether or not to run for politics is their responsibility to fulfil their familial demands. Should a woman consider joining politics, she does not only face a ‘double burden’, highlighting women’s coping strategies as mothers and workers with power differentials in the family in favour of men, but a ‘triple burden’, since in Singapore, becoming a politician is not a full-time career and politicians continue to hold down their full-time jobs in addition to taking on political duties. Having to struggle with balancing the three spheres of family, work, and politics—clearly a woman’s “struggle” and not a man’s since he does not have to contend with these multiple roles—the author argues that the likelihood of neglecting family or career is great because of the demands of a political life and unless and until Singaporean women have found ways of balancing the demands of these three spheres, which often comes at a cost, they are more likely to make the decision of not pursuing a political career. But what kind of choices are women left with? Can they operate within a different value system rather than one that is carved out by men? The possibilities, she suggests, are limited, dependent on whether husbands are willing to ‘mind the children’ and play a larger role of manager in the household, and by extension countering the gender stereotypes embedded in the male breadwinner/female caregiver model.
This panel intends to combine the book launch of the edited volume “Women and politics in Southeast Asia: navigating a man’s world” (by Theresa W. Devasahayam, Portland, Oregon: Sussex Academic Press, Series: The Sussex Library of Asian and Asian American Studies, 2019) with a discussion on three distinct Southeast Asian case studies of androcentric politics, namely Burma/Myanmar, Singapore and Indonesia. It is well known that politics is a male- dominated realm constructed as a male preserve and that women are never “admitted as full and equal members of most polities”, particularly in the case of formal party politics (Fagan and Munck 1997, 103). The complex terrain of formal party politics and women’s experiences in this arena has led to a wave of studies offering a glimpse into the different facets of women’s engagement or, for that matter, disengagement in the political domain. The book to be launched as well as the conference panel presentations contribute to the discourse on women and politics in Southeast Asia by exploring how women navigate the power structures embedded in a male-dominated realm. As in much of the literature on the subject, politics encompasses processes, events, and activities pertaining to the governance of a country or area related to government, parliament, parties and generally the state that regulate public life. While the book acknowledges that there has been a growing literature on the role of women in politics in Southeast Asia, there is far less research which analyses in detail the asymmetrical power relationships between the sexes. This is a gap that deserves to be addressed. In keeping with this aim, we attempt to highlight the “contextually specific ways in which politics constructs gender and gender constructs politics” (Waylen 1998, 1). In regards to gender relations, it must be recognized that Southeast Asia is unique in one respect – women in this region, relative to their sisters in other parts of Asia, enjoy considerable power and autonomy (Dube 1997; Raybeck 1980/1981, 1992; Stivens 1996; Stoler 1977; Strange 1981; Sullivan 1994; Wolf 1990, 1992; Wazir Jahan Karim1992). But does this power and autonomy Southeast Asian women hold translate into greater engagement in politics for them? For this purpose, we present the three case studies, investigating the:
- opposition politician-turned-de facto head of government Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma/Myanmar in a context of androcentric transition politics at the backdrop of a long-ruling military regime;
- competing realities and gender roles negotiations of female candidates in Singapore, having to negotiate a “triple burden” when entering politics at the backdrop of a socio-political patriarchal reality, with blurred lines between public and private patriarchy and the challenges it generates;
- the gender-specific barriers that female members of a matriarchal community face in Indonesia when negotiating regional- and national-level androcentric politics and gender roles prescriptions; thus in an arena which exacerbates or inhibits by its setup and dynamics the transfer and employment of otherwise accumulated power and capital.