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Jakarta Post

'Coronavirus is your wife' vs 'Half the sky'

Jakarta   /   Wed, June 10, 2020   /   10:25 am
'Coronavirus is your wife' vs 'Half the sky' Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD greets journalists during the announcement of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's Cabinet on October 23, 2019. (JP/Seto Wardhana)

Don’t you just love it when government officials put their foot in their mouths? The most recent incident was committed by the honorable Coordinating Legal, Political and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD.

Many of you have probably seen the video of his gaffe. With a satisfied smirk on his face, on May 26 Mahfud stated “Corona is like your wife. Initially, you tried to control it, then you realize that you can't, so you learn to live with it”.

He obviously thought it was a super smart and funny thing to say, so when he got a huge backlash, and not just from women activists, he tried to shift the blame to Luhut B. Pandjaitan, by saying it was a meme he had received from his colleague, the coordinating maritime affairs and investment minister.

A friend of mine, a political science professor, commented “Despicable, sexist and not funny”. But then she added, “On the other hand, it’s good to know that Luhut can't lord it over his wife”. Hah!

Unsurprisingly, many said the “joke” was misogynistic. I mean, comparing your wife to a virus?? One female journalist remarked, “If they don’t like their [wives], why did they marry each other?”

Mahfud and Luhut’s statements occurred less than three weeks after a 16-year-old girl in Bantaeng, South Sulawesi, was brutally murdered. On May 9, Rosmini was stabbed and hacked to death by her two older brothers, Supriyanto, 20, and Rahman, 30, reportedly on their father’s orders.

Her sin? Having allegedly had premarital sex with a much older cousin, so the father ordered his sons to kill her in front of other family members. Apparently Rosmini surrendered herself to her fate. Death is way better than a life that would have been a stigma-filled hell.

The brothers have been arrested, charged with premeditated murder and could receive the death penalty or life imprisonment.

Recently I watched an inspiring 2010 TED talk by the remarkable Sheryl WuDunn, business executive, writer, lecturer, Pulitzer Prize winner (together with her husband Nicholas Kristof) and former correspondent for the New York Times. With Kristof, she coauthored Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (2009).

The title of the book was inspired by Mao Zedong’s proclamation in 1968 “to prove that women are a resource that ought to be deployed outside of the homes into the professional fields”.

WuDunn started her talk by pointing out that the greatest injustice in the 19th century was slavery, in the 20th century, it was totalitarianism and in the 21st century, gender equality.  “The oppression of girls and women worldwide is the human rights cause of our time”, she said.

The book focuses on “genital mutilation, prostitution, rape, maternal mortality, micro-credit and solutions in developing countries.”

What is inspiring about the talk is the way she demonstrates how oppression can be turned into opportunity. WuDunn recounts the cases of three girls from China, Ethiopia and Pakistan who prove that a vicious cycle can be turned into a virtuous cycle. I will share the story of the Chinese girl. Watch WuDunn’s TED talk for the other cases. They are truly inspiring!

Dai Manju was a 13-year-old girl from the Dabian Mountains in the remote part of Hubei province in central China whose parents decided not to school her because they didn’t have the money. When WuDunn and Kristoff wrote about her in the New York Times, they received a flood of donations. This allowed Dai Manju to go to school, where she excelled and continued on to high school and vocational school for accounting. She not only found a job but also sought jobs for her friends. She sent money home and transformed the lives of her family and indirectly that of many others.

WuDunn concluded, “What we saw was a natural experiment. It is rare to get an exogenous investment in girls' education.  [Dai Manju]… not only changed her own dynamic, she changed her household, she changed her family, her village.”

The inspiring stories that WuDunn recounts are not the kind we often hear about. Invariably, it’s all the negative stuff that of course also needs to be reported.  Honor killing is practiced in Europe, the Americas, Australia, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, but hardly ever in Southeast Asia. So the fact that Rosmini’s brutal murder was the first recorded case of honor killing in Indonesia made it very newsworthy.

The fact that Mafhud made the “coronavirus is my wife” statement just a few weeks after the horrific killing of Rosmini serves to demonstrate even more the callous gender insensitivity of many of our political  leaders.

Mahfud and Luhut would certainly condemn the cold-blooded murder of Rosmini. They would be shocked to know that there is a connection between their sexist “jokes” and the murder of a 16-year-old girl. Ya bapak-bapak (yes sirs), you may consider these jokes “harmless” but in fact they are in the same spectrum of oppressive patriarchy as honor killings.

Both stem from the misogynistic view that women are inferior to men and merely property or even commodities that have no agency or rights. An activist commented on Mahfud’s gaff, “a joke that casually objectifies women will only normalize violence against women”.

So please, bapak-bapak pejabat, (honorable officials) it’s high time you raised your gender sensitivity awareness if you don’t want to be seen as enablers of the violence against women epidemic in Indonesia!


Author of Sex, Power and Nation

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.