Indonesian Women Come Into Their Own

"The tide is high but I'm holding on. I´m gonna be your number one." So sang the girl band Atomic Kittens. Indonesia is entering what will become its nuclear age, driven by a huge expansion in energy, with key companies like Pertamina and ministries like Finance, Trade, Energy and Mines led by a new and growing band of women breaking though the glass ceiling.

After initial doubts, Karen Agustiawan keeps her job as president director of Pertamina, Indonesia's top state-owned oil and gas company, while all the directors around her have been washed away by a tsunami of change. And, after an epic standoff against some of the most powerful people in the country who were out to get her, so does Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati. The two are hardly alone across the government, a trend that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted in a speech during her visit to Jakarta year ago as part of the new Obama administration.

"I have to compliment Indonesia for the growing role that women are playing at all levels of society," Clinton said. "And a recognition of the role that women have to play and the opportunities for women to assume leadership positions as many of you in this room have done is another contribution that Indonesia is making. As I travel around the world over the next years, I will be saying to people, if you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity, and women's rights can coexist, go to Indonesia."

It has been a long time coming. Indonesian women, working for low wages, have provided the bulk of the work force in multinational factories since the 1970s, when the country started to open to foreign investment. And, although to the outside world they are usually characterized in photos as wearing the hijab, called a jilbab in Indonesia, there are plenty of miniskirts and there is a growing if hard-fought sense of women's role that belies their place in stricter Islamic societies. In Indonesia, often they are running things.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono reportedly understands that Pertamina could become a truly global oil, gas and energy company, pioneering renewable energy as well as optimizing gas and reducing the cost of oil imports. The failure to hold up oil-lifting against the trend of decline as reserves were exhausted reflected lack of thrust and investment, not just harder geology and deeper waters. Now Pertamina will push oil-lifting back up from 174,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 2009 to an estimated 193,900 bpd in 2010, seeking to become a global player in the Middle East or the Arab and Muslim world.

But these dreams are impossible if Pertamina, as the top state-owned enterprise in a clutch of increasingly profitable SOEs, is run in the style of an old boys club representing yesterday, as a milking cow for patronage, jobs for the boys and profits for the old elite. Agustiawan may be just the right kind of leader to change it.

State SOE Minister Mustafa Abubakar has now confirmed that the president director "will not be replaced" but will keep the job she took up in February 2009, while he confirmed that seven new directors will join Agustiawan on the Pertamina board, chosen from a list of 25 candidates, "Most of them are from internal Pertamina nominations."

But she will still have to fight for progress against the conservative, under-qualified under-capacity male-dominated middle that holds back much of public enterprise and public administration.

Agustiawan is following in the footsteps of Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Indonesia´s feisty Finance Minister, as she fights back against those blaming her for the bungled bailout of failed Bank Century, while Evita Legowo, director general of oil and gas in the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources will be bouncing back in 2010 after failing to find investors for 75 percent of the 40 oil and gas blocks offered for bids during last year, and as Trade Minister E Mari Pangestu soldiers on fighting for free trade against pessimists, vested interests and protectionism.

It is tough at the top for Indonesia´s new generation of women leaders, but when the going gets tough, the tough can get going. They can always take a leaf out of the book of life by Margaret Thatcher, buy a new handbag, put a brick in it, and take a swipe in the cause of tomorrow against the nearest man defending yesterday.

These leaders are part of the inexorable rise of women in Indonesia and the Arab and Muslim world. The country cannot become the seventh largest global economy by 2040, as predicted by Standard Charter Bank recently, without them. As Debnath Guharoy, writing in The Jakarta Post, explained recently, women are the boss in 90 percent of Indonesian households in terms of household budget, and control 57 percent of national grocery purchases.

In a nation whose gross domestic product is 60 percent consumer-driven, it is women who control most family economic decisions, from buying toothpaste to motorbikes. So far 25 percent of Indonesian women have jobs and this is rapidly rising, with more than half of working women going to work on a motorbike.

In five years the number of women riding motorbikes has risen from 11 to 15 percent of the population. The number of women finishing high school has climbed from 21 percent in 2005 to 34 percent in 2009.

The women of Indonesia are getting on their motorbikes and there are a lot more to come. Indonesia needs them to become a world economic power. Yesterday's men will have to learn to accept this and tomorrow's men should welcome it.

You can´t modernize the nation unless women are included in the driving seat. The Economist, in a recent edition, claimed that women's empowerment is the biggest social change of our times. With the next few months, the magazine argued, women will become the majority of the American workforce. They make up the majority of professionals in several countries including the US, a dramatic change from just a generation ago when they were "routinely subjected to casual sexism and were expected to abandon their careers when they married and had children. Today they are running some of the organizations that once treated them as second-class citizens. Millions of women have been given more control over their own lives."

With the elevation of women like Agustiawan, Sri Mulyani, Evita Legowo and Mari Pangestu, Indonesia can show the way for the Muslim world. As the Economist points out, "those that try to resist the trend pay a heavy price in the form of wasted talent and frustrated citizens."

Terry Lacey is a development economist who writes from Jakarta on modernization in the Muslim world, investment and trade relations with the EU and Islamic banking.