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Urban Chat: Powerful women yes, professional women best

Lynda Ibrahim

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Fri, July 5, 2019  /  05:04 pm
Urban Chat: Powerful women yes, professional women best

Illustration of female superhero (

Just when I thought I could take a break from gazing at the noisy political arena, the week's most powerful political pictures emerged. Both involved women, and both instantly got me thinking of what lies ahead for Indonesia until 2024.

The first picture was released by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, showing him accompanied by Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi in a bilateral meeting with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis had their backs to the camera, yet it is obvious from the uniform kafiyyeh that there was not one woman in the six-member senior delegation. 

Beyond any academic study and social media debate, that single frame unflinchingly illustrates how the home of the world's largest Muslim population does much better in gender equality than the world's most conservative Islamic kingdom. Nineteen years into the second millennium Indonesia entrusts the country's money and diplomacy into the capable minds of two female professionals, while Saudi Arabia only started allowing women to drive last year. 

A picture does say a thousand words, so if after seeing that snapshot some Indonesian Muslim women still aim to live under Saudi-style restrictions rather than celebrate the (however imperfect) freedom and gender equality Indonesia offers, then I will say there is something wrong about the way we have been teaching critical thinking at schools so far. 

However still, regardless of the number of words any picture can convey, true equality is practiced through the daily, boots-on-the-ground, behind-media-glare, often boring real life.

Sri Mulyani and Retno commanded such a presence in the aforementioned meeting, or any meeting for that matter, because they have built a professional track record through decades of hard work. They were there by merit, not a PR stunt – unlike what transpired in the week's second viral picture.

There she was, sat among Group of 20 leaders for a group picture, Ivanka Trump. Except for her, everyone else in that picture was a legitimate head of government or an international institution, was legally mandated to represent their constituents' interests, and could return to implement any collective decision through a chain of executive command. Everyone else but her.

Anyone who dared to chirp that Justin Trudeau was a child of Canada's former prime minister would best remember that the younger Trudeau was not at the G20 meeting because he is the son of Pierre Trudeau, he was there because he was an elected official. 

You think the picture was bad? The widely circulated video of Ivanka awkwardly attempting to interject herself into a conversation with three prime ministers and the head of IMF was so embarrassing it was pitiable. I said pitiable, not laughable, because Ivanka is not the mere blonde bimbo many try to dismiss her as, but an economics graduate, with honors, from Wharton.

Most Wharton grads I know rarely had trouble claiming a coveted spot through work and merit, and neither would Ivanka have, had she built her own path instead of playing along with her father's shamelessly inappropriate bring-a-child-to-work scheme.

Her alma mater bestowed her with an award four years before her father's presidency, Ivanka could have continued her entrepreneurial endeavors and commanded even more due respect instead of being remembered as the silly girl in a bell-sleeved pink dress fancying herself to be on a par with four adults who meant business. With the Brexit madness it is hard to draw more flak while standing in the vicinity of Theresa May, yet somehow Ivanka managed to do just that.

Funny how up until a few years ago many Americans still scathingly criticized, often openly laughed at, Indonesia's chronic nepotism, and here I am writing this. 

This does not mean Indonesia is immune to a swing back on the nepotism and cronyism pendulum. Jokowi booked a record of appointing the most women to his first Working Cabinet -- one or two choices were deemed less about merit, but it was nevertheless a record.

Could it be that he will next appoint, not more, but fewer women because of political horse-trading? If Jokowi really has got nothing to lose in his second term, he should demonstrate this with a sharper focus on development plans and more technocrats or professionals to execute his plans. Merit, Mr. President, not Mama's mandate. Can you deliver us this next?

"Among strong women," Jokowi captioned another picture of him, this time posing with a few G20 female attendees that unfortunately also included Ivanka.

Strong women are good, powerful women are great, but what Indonesia needs most on board is professional women. Hopefully Jokowi's next choices will emulate the other accomplished women in that picture, instead of the one who was mainly there to be included in any picture. (ste)


-- Lynda Ibrahim is a Jakarta-based writer with a penchant for purple, pussycats and pop culture.

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