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Catholic woman fights patriarchal bias in Indonesian poll

Golkar Party candidate emboldened by her faith as she battles for better social welfare for women, children and immigrants

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Catholic woman fights patriarchal bias in Indonesian poll

Christina Aryani of the Golkar Party (2nd left) poses for a photo with Muslim women after offering women's empowerment education to voters during a five-month-long political campaign in South Jakarta. (Photo supplied by Christina Aryani)

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Running as a Catholic woman in a patriarchal Muslim country where the fairer sex are often treated as second-class citizens has not deterred Christina Aryani from standing for a second time as she aims to improve education, social welfare, immigrants' rights, and gender equality.

As Indonesia, where nine in 10 people identify as Muslim, readies for elections on April 17, Aryani described her faith as an unshakable rock in turbulent political waters.

"My faith's calling strengthens me. I wouldn't have survived without it. I feel like have been sent to do this," said the 43-year-old, who lost her previous bid to serve as an elected regional representative in 2014.

"I think our society is more open-minded now. But I must admit a patriarchal tendency still prevails in policy making," added the mother of two, who hails from Jakarta.

In addition to the presidential and national legislative elections, this year Indonesians will also vote for members of provincial and district legislatures as well as the Regional Representatives Council. 

It is the first time the country is holding simultaneous legislative and presidential elections, with the same two candidates from five years ago pitted against one another yet again for the top political seat.

Incumbent President Joko Widodo was leading most of the opinion polls last month, prompting conspiracy theories and cries of election rigging from supporters of his chief rival, retired General Prabowo Subianto. 

But a new survey by pollster Litbang Kompas, affiliated with Indonesia's biggest newspaper, suggests this gap is now narrowing as more millennials aged 31-40 and baby boomers shift allegiance, Al-Jazeera reports.

Meanwhile, minority groups, including Ahmadis and other persecuted sects, say they see little hope of change in the coming poll, despite Widodo being lauded for recognizing indigenous people's rights as recently as 2017.

Aryani, who serves as deputy general secretary of the Golkar Party's Central Executive Board, said the country's patriarchal culture and women's lack of financial independence work to hamstring gender equality.

However, a new quota system introduced ahead of the last election mandates that 30 percent of all seats in the national, provincial and district legislatures, as well as in the Regional Representative Council, must be reserved for women.

She must now compete with 4,774 male and 3,194 female national legislative candidates and gather enough votes from Indonesia's 192 million eligible voters to win this month.

Catholic candidate for Golkar Party Christina Aryani is seen here campaigning in South Jakarta in March 2019. (Photo supplied by Christina Aryani)


As she nears the end of a five-month political campaign, that has seen her juggle the responsibilities of a wife and mother with her political duties and career, she said her religious beliefs compel her to push for "fairer rules and regulations."

Aryani has an academic background steeped in law studies and also works as the chief administrative officer at a foreign investment company.

"Men find it a challenge to engage in this kind of multi-tasking," she said.

She is keen to fight for women's rights and greater empowerment, institutionalize more protection for children and migrant workers, and focus on developing the nation's human capital through improved education.

Maria Restu Hapsari, 46, a national legislative candidate from Widodo's ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), who is also a Catholic, said financial constraints work to keep most aspiring female politicians away from the political fray.

"This is something we can't deny," said Hapsari, who is also running in Jakarta. "We often have to compete with male candidates who are much more financially stable."

Critics say to be successful legislative candidates in Indonesia, you need deep pockets as campaigning can run into tens of millions of rupiah.

In total, 7,968 candidates from 16 parties will compete for 575 seats in the upcoming national legislative elections.

The PDI-P and Golkar parties appear to be equally matched with 573 and 574 candidates, respectively. In both cases, women make up about 38 percent of their candidates.

"My political career goes hand in hand with my religious activities," said Aryani.

"By serving the Church, I find a kind of spirituality. And when I focus on politics, I am emboldened by my belief as I'm doing this to promote better social welfare for everyone."

Titi Anggraini, executive director of Indonesia's Association for Elections and Democracy said this year's presidential election is overshadowing the legislative polls.

"People don't have enough information about who the candidates are, and how to vote for them," she added.

Moreover, thousands of legislative candidates will be "faceless" as, unlike the 2014 vote, the ballot sheets this year will not contain their mug shots.

Only candidates for the Regional Representative Council will have their pictures on ballot sheets.

Arbi Sanit, a political analyst from the state-run University of Indonesia, said people's thinking remains biased in favor of patriarchal traditions.

"The window of opportunity has not yet been fully opened to women. Things are improving, but they are still treated as second-class citizens," he said.

He said an equal playing field would only be created when comprehensive reforms are implemented in a range of fields including education, religion, and social economy.

"If that happens, women will finally get the opportunity they deserve in the nation's politics," he added.

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