Gender inequality, like other places around the world, persists in Southeast Asia despite the best efforts of government reforms and activists. With International Women’s Day earlier this week on March 8, it is an opportunity to highlight the women to watch in the region whose work, legacy, and influence will shape the year ahead in Southeast Asia.
Some are among the most recognizable names, such as Aung San Suu Kyi, others are emerging leaders who are well-known at home but are rising in prominence, like Maria Chin Abdullah. Across the region, women are making themselves heard, and here is a look at some examples from individual countries.
Malaysia’s Anti-Graft Warrior
Maria Chin Abdullah earlier this week told a Kuala Lumpur press pack she was planning a career change. A long-time activist, she announced she has resigned from her position as chair of the Bersih 2.0 protest group and will contest in this year’s elections as an independent under the Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition banner.
While she certainly won’t be the most prominent opposition woman in the race – that would be Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, leader of the opposition in the lower house and wife of jailed figure Anwar Ibrahim – Maria Chin’s decision represents key changes in an election otherwise dominated by familiar faces.
Firstly, an outspoken anti-graft activist, who was briefly jailed for demonstrating in 2016, will however briefly put corruption on the election agenda. With both incumbent Najib Razak and challenger Mahathir Mohamad marred by corruption scandals, mutually assured destruction has seen the issue largely kept off the front pages. Maria Chin has no such qualms.
Secondly, her decision to run independently answers many of the criticisms made so far, particularly by young people: if there are so few differences between the parties, why bother voting? Although it is just one electorate, it sends a message to young voters that there are still options available to them in Malaysian democracy.
Locked Up But Not Silenced in the Philippines
Last month, the Philippines’ Leila de Lima marked one year since she had been jailed on drug charges widely to seen to baseless. De Lima had used her position in the senate in 2016 to rail against the bloody war on drugs and call for an investigation into extrajudicial killings under President Rodrigo Duterte. The president and the senator have been enemies for years, tracing back to his time as mayor of Davao City during which time de Lima was chair of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights.
Duking it out in Manila, however, rose the stakes. In a particularly vicious and misogynistic series of attacks, de Lima was accused by Duterte and his supporters of being engaged in sexual affairs and importing drugs and arms into the country. These charges led to her imprisoned in February 2017.
She has continued her fight against the Duterte administration from behind bars and inspired progressive Filipinos and international human rights activists alike, including Pope Francis. Her refusal to stay quiet is an important message often obscured that while Duterte continues to enjoy high polling and support in the country, there is a robust resistance determined to make the Philippines safe.
Indonesia’s Unlikely Hero
Indonesia’s Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries is an unusual pick for a fan favorite. Even in a country made of thousands of islands where maritime security is essential, the role can be seen as dull for the electorate. Enter Susi Pudjiastuti. The cigarette-smoking, yoga-performing, paddle boat-riding minister has changed what it means to be a woman leader in Indonesian politics.
President Joko Widodo has built a strong cabinet with women in the most prominent and essential roles. This is in itself a feat when compared to global counterparts. This has paid off well for his administration, particularly with Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and Finance Minister Sri Mulyani, with the two women the top performers. But it’s Bu Susi, as she’s known, who has become somewhat of a cult hero.
It’s her battle to reform the fishing industries which has made her an effective and inspiring leader beyond the meme-able photos. A ban on a particular type of dragnet used trawl fishing in 2015 saw thousands of small-time fishermen demonstrate against the Susi and the Jokowi administration saying the move destroyed their subsistence livelihood. Sad, the government had conceded, but this is what progress sometimes looks like.
In January, she sat down with demonstrators in Jakarta and reversed the decision with some caveats to ensure environmental sustainability issues would be addressed. As rapid reforms within Indonesia threaten to shut out some of its most vulnerable, Susi leaves an important lesson in compromise and understanding.
Thailand’s First Woman Premier
Yingluck Shinawatra may seem an odd addition to such a list in 2018 given she was ousted as Thailand’s Prime Minister in the 2014 coup, but her legacy will loom large this year as the junta prepares to hold elections. Joining her brother in self-imposed exile in an effort to avoid jail, the ghost of her leadership lingers in Thailand particularly in areas still loyal to the Pheu Thai Party.
The fall of Yingluck, the country’s 28th prime minister but first woman, is a complicated one. Charges of corruption and mismanagement are serious and should be taken seriously. But it also underlines efforts and setbacks in improving gender equality in Thailand over the decades. A segregated labor force and gender pay gap had been slowly but steadily improving through much of the 20th century, before being setback by the devastating 1997 Financial Crisis. Coups and political upheaval are a feature of Thai politics, but the ousting of the country’s first democratically elected female leader nearly 20 years after the economic collapse is symbolic.
Recent polling shows hardly any Thai voters believe the February 2018 election day will eventuate, despite what current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha says. With young Thai showing the fears of the older generation over political dissent in the streets and online may be decreasing, as in the case of the corruption scandal involving Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, despite the stronghold the junta still carries the fall of Yingluck may have been just the beginning.
Reimagining The Lady
The last few years has seen Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi shift from Western liberal feminist darling to evil overseer of genocide. Award after award, most recently the U.S. Holocaust Museum human rights award, have been stripped from the former political prisoner and Nobel Prize awardee as the fall out of the Rohingya crisis continues.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy government is certainly deserving of the international scorn it has received. Rohingya women have suffered rapes and abuses reportedly at the hands of military. Like much of the abuses of the Rohingya, this didn’t spur a response from the de facto leader and has been largely ignored.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s importance this International Women’s Day then is perhaps a dark one. The nuances of non-Western women are often ignored in the rush to ensure diversity in lists of global women leaders. This runs the risk of becoming so invested in the lionization of women, such as Aung San Suu Kyi, moves to condemn actions which endanger the lives of some of the world’s most forgotten women becomes a struggle.
This is Part I of a two-part series putting the spotlight on some of Southeast Asia’s prominent women. Part II next week will look at women from the other remaining countries.