Women in an Era of Anti-Elitism in Asia

*This article was first posted at Asian Currents, the blog of the ASAA.

The theme of the Women in Asia Conference this year is “Women in an Era of Anti-Elitism in Asia”. The Women in Asia Forum began in 1978 and is affiliated with the Asian Studies Association of Australia. In 1981, the first Women in Asia Conference was held at UNSW, and the return of the conference to UNSW marks its 13th anniversary.

The Women in Asia Conference hosted speakers from over 15 countries in Asia, including India, Indonesia, Singapore, Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, China, Iran and Korea. The speakers were drawn from over 30 universities in Asia. The 150 papers were diverse, with the largest concentration of papers on Indonesia (30 papers), and a considerable number of papers on the Philippines (thanks or no thanks to Duterte). 

The Women in Asia Conference is an opportunity to explore issues of gender and feminism theoretically, conceptually, politically and practically. Events like these offer a source of scholarly engagement and intellectual solidarity. More broadly, it is a reminder of our strength in solidarity and the possibility of our ideas when we are involved in broader collective efforts.

Themes of the Conference

In order to set the scene for this event, I will speak to the theme of the conference ‘Women in an Era of Anti-Elitism’, or at its core the challenge of populism to issues of gender equality. What does it mean to think about populism today? Many often refer to the ‘anti-establishment’ or ‘anti-elitist’ element to populism, which is certainly one aspect of it. But I want to suggest that populism, as Jan Werner Muller identifies, is also inherently anti-pluralist. Populism is a particularly exclusive and exclusionary form of identity politics.

Populism understood as anti-pluralism is a threat to democracy. Populism poses a threat to rule of law, a threat to inclusivity and pluralism, and a threat to social and economic equality. While populism understood in this way is certainly a cause for concern, I am encouraged to see the various forms of resistance that emerge. Where there is populism, there is also resistance to populism. And so we come to the core of my argument, which is that this age of populism contains a central paradox because it not only poses a threat to gender equality but at the same time it leads to new forms of resistance and efforts to enhance gender equality.

Let me briefly draw on some examples in my own field of research, law, as a way of illustrating the four of core themes at this conference.

Trump and His Nemesis, RBG

President Trump has many opponents, perhaps one of the most prominent figures is the ‘notorious RBG’, as featured in the movie “RBG”. RBG stands for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a woman judge on the US Supreme Court. The movie documents her work first as an academic and lawyer advocating for gender justice and equality, and then later in her life as a judge on the US Supreme Court. She has her own fan club, her own dance, and is famous for working out at the gym despite now being in her 80s. In short, RBG has a cult following in the way that no other female judge in the world has ever had.

But it was her comments in the lead up to the US presidential elections that really got people talking. See in the US, judges are not supposed to comment on politics. They are not supposed to be political. And they are not supposed to comment on the suitability of presidential candidates. But in 2016, Justice Ginsburg was reported in an interview with The New York Times saying that she did not think Trump was suitable for president.

Last year, I was in the Chicago at the time the US Senate confirmed Brett Kavanaugh as newest appointment to the Supreme Court. His appointment was preceded by a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which commanded the attention of the country. At stake in this hearing was a potential lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court that could change decades of legal rulings, including on issues affecting women’s rights. As part of that hearing, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford made allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh. Despite these allegations, Kavanaugh was nevertheless appointed to the Supreme Court. The hearing once again placed issues of sexual violence and male privilege in the spotlight.

That weekend as the mood in Chicago soured, I went for a walk outdoors. On my walk, I saw a sign hung over a bridge, which simply said “BELIEVE WOMEN” in black, bold letters. I was reminded that for every incident that feels like a step backwards in gender equality, there are acts of resistance. Where populism emerges, so too does resistance emerge to it.

So what does this have to do with Asia? After all this is the Asian Century, an era that demands attention to women in Asia. Several incidents in Asia have similar parallels.

The Philippines: Duterte v Sereno
Women judges in positions of influence have come under attack in the region due to political opposition and the rise of populism. One example is the backlash and legal consequences faced by former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno of the Philippines, an opponent of many of President Rodrigo Duterte’s policies. Sereno has criticised Duterte’s war on drugs and questioned the validity of his list of public officials deemed to be drug suspects. She also opposes the imposition of martial law in the southern Philippines.

In April 2018, Duterte publicly named Sereno as an ‘enemy’. Just a month later, she was put on trial on the basis of a quo warranto petition, although many claim this trial was politically motivated. The Supreme Court (that is, her colleagues) voted 8 against 6 to remove her from office on allegations that she had failed to fully disclose her wealth. Yet the trial was seen as an underhanded means of removing Sereno from office despite the failure to initiate impeachment proceedings, as many claim were the more appropriate response. On social media, supporters of Sereno used hashtags such as #SerenoStillOurCJ and #PeoplesChiefJustice.

Indonesia: Backlash against victims of sexual harassment
Let me take another example, this time from the #MeToo movement or its lack of traction in the region. Indonesia has seen a backlash against women who report cases of sexual harassment. For example, an administrator at a high school in Mataram, Baiq Nuril Maknun found herself subject to sexual harassment from the principal of the school. She decided to record one of his lurid telephone calls about his sex life as evidence of his behaviour. Instead, the principal was successful in a case against Nuril, who was charged for defamation under the Information Technology and Electronic Transactions Law 2008.

The court case against her was not successful at first instance. But then in 2018 the principle appealed the case. The Supreme Court agreed with the appeal by the principal and convicted the woman. This caused significant social outcry particularly from women’s rights groups in Indonesia, prompting Twitter hashtags such as #SaveIbuNuril and #KawalPKBuNuril.

One of the three judges in this case was a woman, Sri Murwahyuni. Sri Murwahyuni is only one of the four women out of 51 judges of the Supreme Court in Indonesia. This raises the tension and paradox that it is not necessarily about the entry of women into certain professions (such as the judiciary), but also about a change of mindset and a battle of ideas.

India: the trials of Indira Jaising
Moving from Indonesia to India, we see similar tensions emerging within the courts on issues of gender and sexual harassment. In April 2019, Indian senior advocate Indira Jaising was represented by senior advocate Anand Grover, who also happened to be her husband, in a contempt of court hearing at Indias Supreme Court. During the trial, the Attorney-General interrupted her lawyer and suggested that the senior Advocate (her husband) should not call her by name but instead call herhis wife’. Days later, on International Womens Day, the lawyers collective The Leaflet published an open letter condemning the Attorney-Generals comment and the range of sexist remarks that Indira Jaising had been subject to throughout her years as an advocate in Indias Supreme Court.

In the weeks that followed, a former female employee of the Supreme Court voiced allegations of sexual harassment against the Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi. The Chief Justice convened a panel to hear the complaint that included himself, declaring that the allegations were a threat to the independence of the judiciary. Women advocates, including Indira Jaising, were among hundreds of lawyers who signed a letter to the President of the Bar Council rejecting the panel’s findings.

Not long after this panel deliberation, a court case was filed implicating Indira Jaising for tax malpractice (and her alleged CIA connections), which was perceived to be another attack on Jaising. The response of the Chief Justice and the Bar Council, and the emergence of the court case against Jaising, shows the real challenges still present for women in the legal profession and the obstacles to dealing with sexual harassment claims in particular.

All these examples – the US, the Philippines to Indonesia and India – illustrate the themes of the conference. These four themes are: gendered processes of power; Women in legal profession and judiciary; the role of technology in populism and gender inclusion; and gendering populism in Asia.

In all four cases, we encounter gendered processes of power and the appropriation of political power through gendered relations. In all four, the law and legal institutions have become key forums in the struggle for gender equality. In all four, technology and online platforms, including social media, has played a role. We see the possibility of technology to both foster the open exchange of ideas and mobilise people, but also its role in promoting particular causes and amplifying discriminatory messages. And in all four, we see the way in which populism is gendered. We see women being invoked as symbols of virtue as part of a resurgence of ‘traditional’ values. We face the challenge of considering whether gendered populisms operate differently in non-democratic or semi-democratic nations than it does in liberal democracies.

I have suggested that this age of populism presents a paradox. It is an age that features both President Trump and his nemesis Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (‘RBG’) in the US; and President Duterte and his nemesis former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno in the Philippines; the principal of a school who took vindictive legal action against the woman he harassed and Baiq Nuril, the victim, and civil society groups that supported her in Indonesia.

While the challenges to equality and empowerment in an age of anti-elitism are of real concern, we must also pay attention to the acts of resistance that emerge in response to it. We must also decide how we will respond. Unlike Justice Ruth Bader Ginburg and the judicial profession more broadly, we as academics are not bound by conventions that say we should not be political. To the contrary, the role of academics as independent intellectuals enables us to choose to engage in acts of resistance, no matter how political they might be. So take this invitation at the Women in Asia Conference to consider your response to these challenges of our times.

Melissa Crouch, Associate Professor and Associate Dean Research, UNSW Law

*Note: this is the opening speech at the Women in Asia Conference at the University of New South Wales, 21-23 June 2019


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