The power of 'emak-emak': empowering or patronising Indonesian women?
September 27, 2018
Seven months out from the presidential election, both pairs of candidates seem to have suddenly discovered the power of Indonesian women. Over the last few months, women’s voices have become increasingly prominent in the campaign.
In September, they held another rally,(link is external) at the General Elections Commission (KPU), calling for Jokowi to follow the lead of former Jakarta Vice Governor Sandiaga Uno and step down from office given that he had already declared himself a candidate for the 2019 race.
Prabowo and Sandiaga look set to run an economy-focused campaign, and Sandiaga, especially, has shown a readiness to use women’s voices to attract votes. In public appearances and on Twitter, Sandiaga has said his economic plans will be based on the real stories of emak-emak, who he says are concerned about the rising costs that the government has failed to keep under control.
Similarly, in the legislature’s 2018 “State of the Nation” address, Speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) and leader of the National Mandate Party (PAN) Zulkifli Hasan said he was “delivering a message from emak-emak”(link is external) when he said that government policies were hurting households.
Long before the recent sensation around the term, emak was understood by many Indonesian women (especially middle-aged women) to imply power, agency, toughness, mobility, freedom, resilience, independence, as well as stubbornness.
When used in this way, emak-emak seems to perfectly encapsulate what many scholars of Indonesia have often argued about Indonesian women – that they have high mobility and relative autonomy and authority, especially when compared to women in many other parts of the world.
The term emak is typically used by children in Java, Sumatra and some other islands to refer to their mothers (although in Sumatra the pronunciation is usually mamak or mak). It is generally considered an indigenous form of the term mama or mum common in urban areas of Indonesia.
Historically, therefore, many people saw the term emak as empowering. It was a reminder of the strength and authority of Indonesian women. It demonstrated how women challenge the rules and expectations that have been placed on them, including, for example, to stay at home and be preoccupied with their husbands’ and children’s needs.
But the presidential campaign has seen this notion of independence, freedom and resilience turned on its head. Political parties and their mostly male politicians are now suddenly speaking on behalf of women. When they speak of emak-emak it no longer sounds empowering – it sounds patronising. This new politicisation of the term seems to be crushing the notion of women’s independence that is strongly embedded in it.
But politicians’ attempts to target these women are misguided. They seem to believe that women are motivated to participate in elections solely because of household concerns. Women and girls are also concerned about sexual violence and harassment, child marriage, genital cutting, equality in the workforce and, last but not least, increased pressure to conform to religious doctrines and values that restrict their mobility and freedom of expression.
As leading political scholar Ani Sutjipto recently, and correctly, observed, the depiction of emak-emak as being rendered hopeless because of economic stress is a major setback. Women’s identities are understood only through their biological roles as mothers, little thought is given to the many different ways women may wish to express their political interests. Sutjipto also somewhat depressingly observed that despite the significant number of women in the national legislature, as a result of hard-won reforms like quotas, women’s voices and interests are still being captured by men.
It is true that the beliefs and ideological orientation of women often have economic determinants. However, patronising and simplistic stereotypes of women as mothers run the risk of not being able to keep up with the transformation of women’s identity in modern Indonesia. This is happening quickly and producing new identities that often seem very different to the old stereotypes.
The campaign has a long way to go, and maybe candidates will find a more sophisticated way to appeal to women voters. Looking at things positively, at least politicians know they need to attract the votes of women. But women’s voices are not uniform, their identities are not singular. Politicians underestimate the power of Indonesian women at their peril.