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Can Islamists Turn Voters Away From a Female Candidate in West Java?

The province is a stronghold for the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS). So can a coalition of Islamist groups end a PKS candidate's campaign just because she's a woman?
Photo by Adrian Salam Wiyono

The ugliness of the Jakarta election may be the new normal in Indonesia. Opponents in contentious regional elections are already painting the races as religious battlegrounds in the hopes of replicating the success of the campaign to oust the capital's former governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama as the country inches toward the 2019 presidential race.

Bandung Mayor Ridwan Kamil has been called a Shia Muslim and criticized for allowing too many churches to open their doors in the city. And in West Java, a coalition of hardline Islamists are contesting the candidacy of Netty Heryawan on the grounds that she's a woman.


The conservative coalition said that Netty, the wife of current West Java Governor Ahmad Heryawan and herself a member of the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), was unfit to lead according to their interpretations of Islamic teachings. So in the province's 2018 governor's race, an Islamist coalition is challenging an Islamist candidate on Islamic grounds.

"Based on the ulemas' views and a comprehensive study by Islamic organizations, we are standing against female candidacy in the 2018 West Java gubernatorial election," the coalition's head HM Roinul Balad told the state-run Antara News Wire. "I mean, it's like we don't have any male candidates. Men have better leadership instincts, which we especially need here in West Java because it's tougher here, even when you compare it to Jakarta."

People often try to use religious arguments for women's role at the mosque as justification for arguments that bar women from politics, explained Iklilah Muzayyanah, the head of Nahdlatul Ulama's women's league and the University of Indonesia's gender research center.

"In Indonesia, the majority of people believe women can't lead the prayers, so this notion is sometimes expanded to other sectors," Iklilah told VICE Indonesia. "That's why there are some Islamic leaders who believe that women cannot lead."

The whole thing gets even weirder when you consider how many of Ahmad Heryawan's policies during his two terms as governor favored the province's conservative fringe. Ahmad inked a deal with the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) banning the minority Ahmadiyah Muslim sect from practicing their faith in West Java. He once told the local press that all problems with the minority sect in West Java would stop if the Ahmadiayah themselves just disappeared.


West Java was also ground zero for instances of religious intolerance during his time in office as numerous minority mosques, protestant, and catholic churches were forcibly shuttered or demolished by local authorities. Christian pastors were jailed, Ahmadiyah communities destroyed, and Batak churches demolished in wave after wave of what some called state-sponsored intolerance.

So why is a group of hardline Islamists now fighting against his wife's campaign bid? It has a lot more to do with ousting a potential political dynasty than religion or gender. Netty is the wife of Ahmad, a man know as Aher locally, and many in this province see her candidacy as an attempt by her husband to instal a political dynasty in Indonesia's most-populated province as he moves on to his own presidential ambitions in the 2019 race.

"It's actually pretty funny that an Islamic party could also be criticized by an Islamist organization," Sarah Soeprapto, a West Java resident, told VICE Indonesia. "I don't support her, not because of her gender, but because the way I see it, she's Aher's wife, so it looks like West Java is Aher's little dynasty."

Netty's own campaign manager says that the attacks had more to do with her marriage to Ahmad than her gender. "People out there start to throw around the term 'political dynasty' and then there's this protest against her candidacy on the grounds that she's a woman," Ridho Budiman Utama told local media. "Well, this is politics. It's dynamic. But we have anticipated all of this."


But others still see the debate over whether or not a woman can lead as the latest iteration of old Islamist arguments that men are more competent in leadership roles or that it's "haram" to elect a woman leader—despite repeated calls from the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI) arguing otherwise.

"The only thing that matters is whether a candidate is qualified, irrespective of his or her gender, race, and religion," said Laras Sekar Melati, of Bandung, West Java. "The organizations that made a big deal out of the candidate's gender can make a big deal out of anything—like a candidate's religion. So I think it's best to ignore them."

In 2003, Indonesia implemented a 30 percent minimum quota for women in every political party. That regulation helped boost the numbers of women in the House of Representatives (DPR). But all too often, most of the women fielded by political parties were first models, actresses, singers, or ladies with well-connected families. By [2009](, a quarter of all women in politics were celebrities first, and 42 percent came from connected families.

Megawati Soekarnoputri, the daughter of independence leader Soekarno, was the country's first female president, taking control of the State Palace after Abdurrahman Wahid was impeached after less than two years at the helm. But critics say she did little to raise awareness of women's issues or fight for women's empowerment during her term in office.

Still, Megawati's role as the nation's president, and the rising visibility of a number of other strong female leaders and government officials like Susi Pudjiastuti, means that efforts to topple a candidate's campaign on the grounds of her gender alone are unlikely to gain much ground, even in conservative West Java.

"This has nothing to do with her gender, it's just a political strategy to defeat an opponent," Iklilah told VICE Indonesia. "The Muslim middle and upper class have accepted the fact that a woman can lead. It might slightly look like a gender issue, but it's really a political issue based on religion."