In Australia this week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard gave a fiery speech attacking the Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott, asking him to look in the mirror when he accesses sexism and misogyny.   Her speech has brought forth a series of exchanges being labeled the ‘misogyny wars’. While much of the debate has at its core concerns their respective positions as government and opposition, Gillard’s speech brings to the fore some of the serious challenges women face in public life, especially ‘strong women’.

Women globally only make up an average of 18% of legislatures, and in Southeast Asia this number (as of 2011) was only 15.9%. The chart below details the variation across the region. (Note there have been updates on these numbers in elections in Myanmar and Timor after their polls this year). Nearly half of the region is below the global average. Even fewer women are national leaders. This year there are only twenty women as leaders of their government in the world. Only one of those is in Southeast Asia – Yingluck Shinawarta of Thailand. The region has had only four women leaders. This pattern extends to cabinets and judiciaries. The reality is that women continue to be the minority in government, despite efforts to promote representation through quotas and mentoring.

Percentage of Women in Southeast Asia Parliaments, 2011

Once they enter public life, women have to face particular sexist forms of criticism. Women are more often criticized for their appearance, for example, and there are regular referents to the female anatomy. While men can face this as well, women disproportionally do so. The issue of the attacks on women was the subject of a paper I presented at the ISEAS ‘Where are the Women?’ conference on October 10th here in Singapore (forthcoming in a book next year). Drawing from lessons throughout Southeast Asia I pointed to examples of references to squatting, prostitution, menstruation and more, to illustrate the attacks on women politicians are often gendered and sadly these sort of attacks are sometimes seen as acceptable. Gillard’s speech cites a number of examples in her experience, including the ‘Ditch the Witch’ campaign. Women who rise to leadership positions are deemed ‘unfeminine’ while at the same time criticized for being a woman. They face gendered attacks from all sides. Like all women who have careers, there is always the difficult challenge of balancing family life with the career. In public service there is a third area where women have to manage, the arena of public service. Too often, in this arena, women are degraded unfairly and repeatedly public humiliated as the boundaries of acceptability of behavior towards women are crossed.

Words like ‘sexism’ and ‘misogyny’ are loaded and evoke strong responses. Many in politics dismiss a gender lens in understanding politics. Some – including Tony Abbott – go as far to suggest that ‘sexism’ is a shield obscuring other issues. The route is not to dismiss or belittle sexism.  Rather, we need to bring it to light and search for policies and practices to address it. Gender – and the concerns like sexism that it brings forward – continues to be an important framework to understand politics. Gillard’s speech shows this aptly. It is worthwhile viewing and can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihd7ofrwQX0