USAID has been providing training to enhance the capacity of women legislators through its Support for Women in Aceh program.
Ibu Nurhayati enters her office, her cell phone ringing. She smiles, making immediate eye contact with her guests, while transmitting the urgency of the call. The cell’s ring tone is an American rhythm and blues song; discordant with her jilbab and heavy conservative dress.
For an Acehnese woman in a conservative society, Nur is remarkably forthright when analyzing her life choices. “I think I knew I could take a position of leadership as far back as junior high school. I had the activist in me even then. I also knew I was destined to champion issues of gender, to become a woman legislator,” she explains. Married before the age of twenty, Nur adds, almost as an aside, “Of course, I had to convince my husband to let me go to school.” She laughs with the memory. “Yes, for a woman in Aceh, I have a strange resume: wife, mother, activist.”
USAID has been providing training to enhance the capacity of women legislators through its Support for Women in Aceh program. The course work is geared to improving the technical skills of women parliamentarians. They study such basics as budget monitoring and oversight. But the courses also introduce gender as a concept – as well as a tool – to analyze the social conditions in which Acehnese women live. “It is crucial for the women members of parliament to be able to use gender as a lens to see the great unevenness of relationships between men and women in Acehnese communities,” says Ibu Nur. “Without this training it would be difficult to have parliamentarians to champion the cause of women in their constituencies.”
Nur has five children, two are girls. She seems, despite her years of activism, extremely earnest, not at all jaded. When she speaks of her years promoting women’s issues, her eyes have a benign fire.
The USAID training employs role-play to promote equality. “This teaches you how to communicate on an equal footing with men,” she explains. “Women need this confidence if they are to take on gender issues in the legislature.”
Like so many Acehnese, Nur sees the 2004 tsunami as an agent of change. “In my case, it became clear that women would need so much more help. At first I managed an information office here in town – directing people to available resources.” She lived on adrenaline alone and without benefit of perspective. “Of course, when things settled down there was a rumor that I took up this task only as an entrée into politics,” she reveals.
“The goals of women legislators are simple really,” says Nur. “Women need education, both university and vocational training. There must be an emphasis on maternal and child health. Housewives, particularly widows, need to be empowered. They need to be able to work.”
Getting her male counterparts to see issues through her “gender lens” is a great challenge for Nur. “Men think that if we talk about gender it simply means we are asking for rights. But it is so much more. If they approach gender from a life perspective, from a family perspective, then they embrace a broader knowledge of the issue,” Nur explains, smiling in a way that suggests she has found the most important tool in her armament. Her colleagues call her their woman warrior. And Nur will not deny that politics can be cruel, tough. Of course, her husband worries about her, she admits. She is very vocal and everyone knows her.
But Nur says that with issues of domestic violence on the rise in Aceh, a woman does not need to be arguing on the floor of parliament to face challenge. “Politics is everywhere in our lives; our family life and our social life,” she says. “There is always a risk. Whenever you change a law, there are dangers. Someone may be unhappy with the result. But whatever happens to me is God’s will. There is no point in worrying.”