Southeast Asia's Glass Ceiling

This week, for my column in The Edge Review (on Twitter @EdgeReviewSEA), I look at how the countries of Southeast Asia seem to be suffering from a paucity of women in political leadership roles.  Here’s my take, and feel free to leave any comments in the field below, or talk to me on Twitter @keithrichburg.
Copyright: The Edge Review, 2014
Perpetuating the pecking order
Women still struggle to get on top in politics in Southeast Asia
By almost any measure, the countries of Southeast Asia are doing remarkably well.  Economic growth has averaged more than 5 per cent a year for the last decade.  The middle class is expanding, consumption and industrial output are soaring.  And the region has remained largely free of the kind of inter-state conflicts bedeviling much of the world.
But in one major area, Southeast Asia still falls woefully short by almost any global measure: the number of women in the top ranks of politics and government.
I thought about this uneven state of affairs for women when I read the story in a recent edition of The Edge Review about Malaysian federal opposition leader Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, a trained physician with the backing of Selangor state assembly, who has been blocked from becoming chief minister of the state for the simple reason that she is a woman. Malaysia, which counts itself as a Muslim democracy, has never had a woman as a leader of a state, much less as prime minister.
This seemed to me a reversal for a region that I thought was making progress toward gender parity in politics, from the time I covered President Corazon C. Aquino in the Philippines in the 1980s, and then saw Megawati Sukarnoputri become president of Indonesia in 2001.
But instead of progress, the intervening years have seen reversals. Politics in Southeast Asia has remained an Old Boys’ Club.
When Yingluck Shinawatra was forced out as Thailand’s prime minister last May, the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) were left with not a single female head of government. And the new Thai cabinet appointed by military ruler Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha is heavy on military men but with scant few women.
And in Myanmar, the ruling generals who wrote the country’s 2008 constitution seem determined to keep pro-democracy activist and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from running in next year’s presidential election, by maintaining a quirky constitutional ban on any candidate with a foreign spouse or children.
A glance around the region sees not much more progress for women in other political leadership roles.
Meritocratic Singapore? In a cabinet of 18 ministers, I count one woman. Vietnam? The Communist Party may espouse equality as official doctrine, but by my count, the ruling Politburo sees fit to have only two women in the mix of 16. And the Politburo of Communist Laos is not much better: I see one woman, Pany Yanthotou, the National Assembly president, out of 11 positions.
Cambodia is essentially run by Prime Minister and Strongman Hun Sen, with one woman among his many deputy premiers.
Take a look at the latest Global Gender Gap Report issued by the World Economic Forum, and the results are pretty consistent with the prima facieevidence.
According to the survey, in the overall rankings for 2013, the top spots for gender equality go to the usual Northern European suspects – Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Perhaps to the surprise of some, the Philippines makes it to No.5 in the world — but that’s the only Southeast Asian country to crack the top 50. Singapore clocks in at No.58; Laos is 60 and Thailand is 68, while Indonesia is 95. Malaysia is way down at No.102 in terms of the overall gender gap, just two notches ahead of Cambodia at a miserable 104.
That index measures everything from health to education levels to economic opportunity. But now bore into those statistics a little deeper, and the numbers become eye-popping.
For example, when “political empowerment” is measured separately, most of the Southeast Asian countries fall down pretty dramatically. Singapore drops to No.90 in the rankings, Thailand falls to 89 and Laos to 73. Even the Philippines drops down to No.10, but still leads the ASEAN pack. Vietnam ranks just 80th in the world in terms of women’s political empowerment. And Malaysia collapses to No.121. Indonesia, however, climbs to No.75, much higher than its overall ranking of 95.
You might think Malaysia’s low ranking — below those stalwart defenders of women’s rights Saudi Arabia and Bahrain — would put it in Southeast Asia’s cellar in terms of women having an equal political foothold. But, no, that honor belongs to Brunei.  The Sultanate ranks 135th overall on the issue women’s empowerment, tied for last place with Qatar.
Why is Brunei at rock bottom? It might have something to do with the new Shariah, penal code, which is being phased in over three years, which would institutionalize discrimination against women and impose Medieval penalties on everything from skipping prayer to having a pregnancy without being married. Women in Brunei who violate the strict dress code provisions are subject to six months in jail and a hefty fine; adultery and same sex coupling could in theory bring a penalty of stoning.
The law has prompted protests from women’s groups and human rights activists around the world, including a summer protest outside the Brunei-owned Beverly Hills Hotel, where entertainment figures such as comedian Jay Leno called for a boycott of the venerable Hollywood landmark.
What could turn around this regressive state of affairs for Southeast Asian women?
I look hopefully to Indonesia, where incoming reformist president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, has a chance to make a fresh start — and serve as a regional model — in Southeast Asia’s biggest and arguably most influential country, which also happens to be the world’s largest Muslim-majority democracy. He could begin by committing to naming women to half his cabinet positions — and not the traditional “women’s” posts such as Minister for Female Empowerment or Tourism.
And Jokowi should then start to dismantle the scores of discriminatory local laws on everything from mandating the wearing of the hijab – a traditional Muslim headscarf – to restricting women from going out at night without a male relative. Those restrictive laws were allowed to proliferate under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and need to be scrapped.
Jokowi should also move to protect women’s reproductive rights, and get parliament to pass protections for domestic workers who go abroad.
When Jokowi’s election was confirmed, Human Rights Watch, in a letter, urged the president-elect to put respecting human rights at the top of his agenda. And he needs to remember,  “women’s rights are human rights.”
Who uttered that phrase?  Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at the U.N. Women’s Conference in Beijing back in 1995. And Clinton is still, if the pundits are right, trying to shatter that hardest, highest glass ceiling in the U.S. — which, by the way, ranks just 60th on that political empowerment index.
In case you were wondering, that puts the U.S. one notch below China.