Thursday, January 05, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, June 11, 2005


Alpha Amirrachman, Jakarta

Despite the recently lifted beauty pageant ban slapped on our women -- which prevent any from participation in the Miss Universe competition in 1996 -- on the grounds of "cultural, religious and sexual exploitation" reasons, gender inequality has always been ubiquitous in our society.

A feminist friend summed it up with a simple, clear sentence: "Women and men are not identical, but they are equal." The first clause shows sexuality, while the second gender awareness. "The problem is the two are intimately related," she explained. In a patriarchal society they are overlapped, resulting in social inequality. Marriage, pregnancy and menstruation, which are associated with sexuality, are regarded as "natural obstructions" that prevent women from receiving equal treatment in society.

In education, many parents have long given priority to their sons in furthering their education, not their daughters based on the argument, "Our daughters will end up cooking in the kitchen anyway."

But recent statistics from the National Education Ministry shows something encouraging: Participation at elementary school level was 96.64 percent for males and 94.34 percent for females. In junior high, the gap nearly disappears with 56.62 percent and 56.30 percent for males and females, respectively.
And, notably, female students are statistically more successful in completing each level of education. At the elementary level it is 96.18 percent and 95.88 percent; in junior high it is 93.28 percent and 90.83 percent and at high school it is 95.95 percent and 94.91 percent. For higher education it is 15.39 percent and 14.22 percent for female and male students, respectively.

If we examine the workforce issue, however, the numbers are quite disappointing. The statistics show that females in the workforce generally receive lower incomes than their male counterparts. Another example is in civil servant recruitment, where there is a wide gulf between successful applicants -- males (62.40 percent) and females (33.25 percent).

In the national political structure, women are represented by only 8 percent of their own. So it can be concluded that the output of our education system is still considered very low and a large proportion of women still do not receive proper education. This is evident as a large number of women leave their families to work as domestic helpers in foreign countries. Out of 1.95 million Indonesians working overseas, 65 percent are women.

Many of them have been treated in an inhumane manner -- tortured, raped and killed -- and without adequate judicial protection from our representatives. Worse still, our domestic thugs often prey on them right from their arrival at the airport. Regrettably, women -- who make up a vital part of the paid Indonesian labor force -- are prone to exploitation.

Furthermore, quite ironically, aside from working overseas, others are also still subjected to violence at home. Domestic violence, for example, is spiraling as result of the socially constructed patriarchal perception, which is still prevalent in our society. And it largely goes unreported, apparently due to fears of a harsher backlash. A female friend whose face was black-and-blue only dared to whisper about her ordeal to her best female friend. One study shows that marital rape and sexual assault are on the rise, which confirms men's perceived sexual entitlement.

Why does all this happen here?

Arguably, first, despite the "statistical progress" in gender equality in school participation, education remains an unattainable luxury for too many young women and girls.

Second, there is a lack of adequate education in society about gender issues. Deep under the surface there is problem of mental awareness.

Are our schools guilty of nurturing this mental awareness? Partially yes. In addition to many families and the media, schools are responsible for inculcating the dominant values of society. Although the development of our curriculum is steadily moving toward the elimination of gender bias, gender stereotypes remain intact.

If we ask teachers most would say that they are against discrimination, but it is an open secret that social norms that continue the unequal treatment of girls and the preferential treatment of boys still prevail, though perhaps just on a subconscious level.

For example, some young women at a vocational school say that they receive covert mockery from the young men (who dominate the school), especially during metal-working classes. And the teachers ignore it. This can be perilous; particularly as we are now adopting a competence-based curriculum, for this can discourage girls from exploring and developing their genuine interests to achieve competence.

So how do we nurture gender awareness in our education system? Sex education seems to be the answer. However, if we examine the text books, most of what is termed "sex education" is science-based, which simply provides "technical" information on pregnancy, reproduction and birth.

Although one text of violence against women can be found in our new civic education, substantive discussion on values of the relationship between males and females and the subsequent social consequences are still rare. Or, if this were to be further developed by teachers, would it be possible to do effectively, amid the latent patriarchal culture and degradation of women in our society?

Despite the fact that we once had a female president, the cases above show that what my feminist friends dreamed of that "Women and men are not identical, but they are equal" is still from a reality in our society. And schools are partly responsible for this. Decisive policies to provide more access to education for women and a pedagogical campaign for gender equality is therefore indispensable.

And perhaps Artika Sari Devi, an educated Muslim woman, can also seriously help to campaign for this "education for all women" and silence those who are cynical about her taking part in the Miss Universe competition, which is not merely about physical beauty, but also about inner beauty, intelligence, knowledge, skills, and dignity.

No comments: