December 01, 2014
A Woman's Place is in the Home? Seriously, Mr. VP?

Is a woman's place really at home that, as Vice President Jusuf Kalla recently suggested, her working hours must be reduced in order to protect the sanctity of Indonesian families?

by Sarah Forbes
Issues
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I’m a middle aged Australian woman, already WNI (naturalized Indonesian citizen) for 20-odd years. My name is Bali Sarah, which is not necessarily a compliment. 

My Indonesian husband refers to me as ‘stok lama’ (old stock). We have two terrific uni-student kids who have been independent overseas for years, and I have always loved to work a lot.  No apologies. And after a recent battle with breast cancer, no guilt either.

Bapak Jusuf Kalla, I voted for you. With reservations, I admit. I think we all know you weren’t the draw card on the ballot paper.  It’s just that you’ve been around sooo long.  You have always seemed vaguely decent, at least in that old-school, gentlemanly fashion, so I was OK with supporting you with my votes.

I believe it’s possible that you have good intentions. So I can’t begin to express my heartache when I read your recent statement about women in the workforce as below. Furthermore, the fury I felt in the absence of any strong Twitter defense of the women of Indonesia in the hours that followed.  Even by Indonesian women themselves, although some limited controversy does seem to be surfacing on social media in the days that have since followed.

For those of you who missed it, here we go:




“JK spoke about his desire to reduce office hours for working mothers out of the blue. He (JK) received a text about the worrying future of the nation’s children, so he spoke about [the reduction of office hours] reflexively,” Nurhasan said, as quoted by VivaNews.  Nurhasan said JK believes that children need their mothers’ personal touch while growing up.

 “Women have rights and responsibilities. He (JK) suggested that office hours should be reduced, because women are responsible for caring for our future generations,” Nurhasan said.

“It’s like that in Japan. Women’s [working rights] are limited so they can dedicate more attention to children. Children need their mothers’ touch,” he continued.

The articles this appeared in got swamped by my usual morning Twitter mash up of rebellious activism, calls for legalization, Change.org appeals for endangered animals, corruption outrage, and gig announcements that makes up my “I’m not quite ready to face the day” read.  But I looked at the lovely cup of coffee that either my husband, or children bring me almost religiously every morning (more about that below) while I’m scrolling in bed and thought, “how is that concept even valid, mister”??? 

I posted a series of upset comments…no one answered.  I could only find one decent, sympathetic to my way of thinking response in the media, from Jakarta Governor Ahok (Basuki Tjahaja Purnama) who commented, “belum tentu semua perempuan suka dengan usulan tersebut”  and “jangan anggap remeh perempuan” (“women may not necessarily agree with that plan” and “never underestimate women”).

I complained to a like-minded Indonesian executive via WA, who told me even worse news: this theme was even trending globally, according to an article titled Turkish President Says Women Shouldn’t Be Considered Equals, during an international conference on justice and rights for women.  Yikes!! So by writing this piece I’m trying to have my say as publically as I can. Come on, ladies, stand up.  It’s just wrong, wrong, wrong! And anyway it’s safe to jump up and down about it; the glass ceiling is still miles above your head in so many countries, including ours.

As far as I’m concerned, JK’s statement implies negligence when women work full time, or presumably, as much as their husbands. In my experience, children who are raised by two equally participating parents have as good a chance as any of growing up healthy, happy and well-adjusted.  Of course, with working moms and dads, there will be others involved in the child-raising process, as is the case anywhere in the world: carers, relatives, pre-school teachers. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, nor are the children automatically at a disadvantage because mom isn’t there 24/7. 

Happy, fulfilled, and contributing-financially-therefore-empowered mom may well be tired, over-and over-stretched (just like dad, in a well-balanced family) ­– that goes with having babies – but just as worthy as stay-at-home mom. 

How families decide to manage their young children is their own business. The point is in the modern world this should be a 50/50 deal between mum and dad, where they both get to make whatever choices they agree on and see fit.

The offensive, stereotypical sexism in JK’s statement is so clearly discriminatory that it doesn’t need any further explanation. It cleverly taps into the nagging feeling that is never far away from working parents of either sex, that somehow they are guilty for choosing career over their kids.  Only with this statement, the guilt of the kids “missing out” is laid squarely at mom’s feet.

The thing is, the reality of urban Asian life is that this is often not even a choice: both parents need to work full-time.  And if women can’t work as hard as men, how can they have the satisfaction of reaching the same levels in their careers, not to mention, the respect and increased remuneration that goes with an exciting career path. Why should they, rather than men, be automatically delegated to 2nd ranking, because they have a young family?

The Japanese labor laws that JK referenced were written in 1949 and revised in 1986.  They are considered restrictive in terms of women reaching their labor potential.  For example, even new male recruits in Japanese companies are put in a different career stream to the majority of women, and as a result, “women remain under-represented in the upper echelons of management, medicine and law in Japan” (read: Kimoto, Gender and Japanese management).

Is that the future we want for our Indonesian daughters? Instead, why not look to China, with the highest rate of executive committee members in Asia at (a still measly) 4 percent, instead of Japan that clocks in, unsurprisingly, pathetically at 1 percent. Or beyond, where women are on a slow but steady gender-balancing journey, and better executive representation? (read: the Harvest Business Review, July, 2014.)

I’m sure you get my point.  But I know this isn’t the way things have to be. My husband, also a professional, tries his best to be responsible for his share of household responsibilities, even though he’s a classic product of his generation and his domestic skills are limited. He’s better at buying and serving beverages (he has definitely mastered both coffee and ice-making) than he is in a supermarket or in the kitchen, but he gives our home effort and focus.  He’s also great at processing the washing, making the bed, and buying essentials like loo paper and rubbish bins. He respects me and doesn’t expect any more of me, in terms of running our home, than he does of himself, and he is a real pleasure to share my daily life with.

Funnily enough, I grew up in a relatively conservative family, where mom worked part-time to help with the bills, but fitted in around family responsibilities, as my dad was always, always away at work. As relatively unlikely as it may sound, in fact my 100 percent Indonesian (not that it should matter) mother-in-law, now in her late 60s, is my professional inspiration. 

She had a remarkable, senior career, perhaps one of the more notable ones in the area she came from, in her generation, and was devastated when a downturn in tourism forced her earlier-than-expected retirement. She pretty much wants to work forever, still does a lot of part time consultancies and rarely spends a full day at home. She is highly religious, and has managed to be a devoted and lovely mother, despite a difficult divorce when her career overtook her husband’s (again, not surprisingly, she has remained happily single ever since). I often seek advice from her, both about my career path, and how to nurture and grow my majority-female, Indonesian staff body.

I am really looking forward to the era of Revolusi Mental, and hope this is just a “one step forwards, two steps back” sort of transition period.  Because the female workforce of Indonesia is terrific and deserves a fair bit of encouragement and support from the state, and their hopefully rapidly enlightened partners. 

They are half of the population.  Imagine the impact on society and the economy if their potential was properly realized.

*Dedicated to Rusma, Trisna and Suarti

Sarah Forbes (born and raised in Sydney) has lived in Indonesia since 1991, taking citizenship soon after arrival. Passions include two grown up children, feminism, the natural environment, current affairs, snorkeling, cooking and socializing. Her years in Indonesia have caused her to take a zero-tolerance position on all things not 'baik dan benar' (good and correct).