Indonesia fights misogyny on Twitter

Judge Muhammad Daming Sunusi didn't see anything wrong when he said that rape victims and their perpetrators must have enjoyed their sexual intercourse. But then neither did the members of the Indonesian parliamentary commission who were conducting a confirmation hearing for his appointment to the Supreme Court. The judge made the remarks as he rejected proposals to introduce capital punishment for rapists.

Judge Daming had the chance to redeem himself when confronted by journalists immediately after the hearing. Instead, he defended himself saying the banter was intended to break the ice of an otherwise tense hearing. Proving his point, he revealed, was that many House members in the room laughed along with him. 

That sick joke, however, is almost certain to cost him a spot on the nation's top court. While none of the House members reprimanded him, news of his remarks quickly went viral in the social media, most particularly on Twitter and Facebook. Within the hour, angry condemnations came swift and fast. Some went as far as suggesting that his wife and daughter should be raped, if only to put some sense into the judge. 

It took him a full 24 hours before he came out and publicly apologized. In a tearful television appearance, he said that when he got home that night, his family confronted him and told him that he had been out of line. It was not clear whether the tears were genuinely for his error of judgment, or for losing the chance of promotion. 

The major political parties have already told their representatives in the House not to endorse Daming's appointment. The Judicial Commission plans an investigation into whether the judge violated the profession's code of ethics. Daming could lose his hammer and even be disrobed if found guilty. The joke is clearly on him.

All this thanks to social media. 

Cyberspace has now become the major battleground in the fight against misogyny, racism, and bigotry. At times, online campaigns are far more effective than organizing street protests. 

The latest outcry clearly has not stopped with the judge. Social media is still buzzing with questions about the attitude of House members present in the room. Why did they laugh along with the judge? And why didn't anyone reprimand him on the spot? 

The conclusion can be very disturbing: Sexism is prevalent and is not confined to the judge and the handful politicians who laughed or kept silent. It is a reflection of how many people in Indonesia are still insensitive to issues like rape and rape victims. Taking your battle online doesn't necessarily mean that you always win. 

But there are some heartening examples. The district chief of Garut in West Java is almost certain to lose his job after the local legislative council moved to recommend his impeachment. His sin? He divorced his 17-year old wife after only four days of marriage because she was no longer a virgin. Aceng Fikri, the 40-year old district chief, would have gotten away with his move had news of his action not gone viral on the  internet. The protests, and the calls for his removal, were so strong that the local legislative council quickly got in the act. His fate is now in the hands of the central government. 

The mayor of Lhokseumawe, in the natural gas-rich province of Aceh on Sumatra, looks like he will win his battle against his detractors. Mayor Suaidi Yahya has ruled that women cannot straddle the pillion when riding motorcycles because men would find it too sexy. He said it was "un-Islamic" for women to spread their legs in public; instead they should sit with both legs to one side. Never mind comfort or safety -- morality comes first, he argues. 

The mayor refused to back down in spite of massive protests, because he had the support of the Muslim religious establishment and the Islamist political parties. The ban on women sitting astride will come into force in May.

Racism is also a topic that has recently moved into cyberspace. An unknown lawyer with the unrealistic ambition of becoming Indonesia's next president tweeted attacks on the deputy governor of Jakarta, Basuki "Ahok" Purnama, because of his Chinese ethnicity. The lawyer, Farhat Abbas, was widely criticized. It's not clear who won this particular battle. Abbas got the public attention he sought, if briefly, but it has not raised his chances in the slightest of getting onto a presidential ticket.  

Bigotry will be harder to fight if only because the attitude is so strong and pervasive in Indonesia. In October, gay activist Dede Oetomo was literally taunted in the House of Representatives during an election to choose members of the National Commission on Human Rights. Having made the shortlist of 13 candidates for the commission, he faced a tough campaign from conservative Muslims who opposed his election on the basis of his sexual orientation. Conservatives used social media effectively to mobilize public pressure on the House to reject Dede's selection. When the commission members were finally elected, he only got one vote. And he was jeered by the House members along the way. 

Misogyny, racism, and bigotry may be on the rise -- or perhaps they're just becoming more visible, given the openness of Indonesian society. From now on, though, it's clear that both sides will be resorting increasingly to the online realm to fight it out.

Photo by BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images


Maduro vs the economy

Rumors about President Hugo Chávez's health continue unabated. Most are bad for the president, who has not been seen or heard from in more than a month. If they are true, Venezuela is headed for a presidential election that will largely be affected by the peculiar ways of its economy.

Judging by recent economic figures, one would be forgiven for thinking that Nicolás Maduro, Chávez's heir, should have nothing to worry about. Venezuela grew at more than 5 percent in 2012. Oil prices, by far the economy's mainstay, remain high, and the government increased investment in public housing, which has stimulated the construction industry.

In spite of this, the IMF has forecast GDP growth to decrease sharply this year (though the government disagrees). Inflation remains stubbornly high, and based on December's figure of 3.5 percent -- the highest monthly inflation rate in two years -- it could be accelerating.

Most of these problems can be traced to Venezuela's enormous public deficit. In an effort to ensure his re-election, the Chávez administration opened the spending floodgates last year, and the fiscal deficit reached somewhere between 9 and 15 percent of GDP. (A large portion of Venezuela's public spending is secret discretionary spending, so estimates vary.)

A lot of the money goes to subsidies. Chavez gives away gasoline for practically nothing, at a cost of billions of dollars each year. Public payrolls have swelled to an estimated 2.5 million people (again, opacity), close to 20 percent of the work force. Thousands of houses are built and given away. But this is only a partial reading of the fiscal reality.

One thing that sets Venezuela apart from other countries is that the government, by virtue of its monopoly over the oil sector, is practically the sole supplier of foreign currency in the country. Since 2003, Venezuela has had a fixed rate, currently set at 4.3 Bolivar Fuertes in exchange for 1U.S. dollar. However, the price in the black market is BsF. 17 per dollar -- and climbing.

Instead of selling its petrodollars at the market exchange rate, the government sells them for far less. Venezuela's currency exchange system is an enormous subsidy for those who can get access to official dollars -- the wealthy, the powerful, travelers, and the well-connected.

Aside from being regressive, the other perverse effect of this policy is that it stimulates imports (since most importers theoretically have access to the subsidized government rate). Much in Venezuela is imported, and this has only gotten worse thanks to Chávez's relentless attacks on private property. Not surprisingly, private investment is practically nonexistent. Oil wealth comes in, and immediately leaves again in the form of imports. Despite the boom in oil prices, this leaves the country with little domestic production  to improve the prosperity of ordinary Venezuelans. There are few options for Maduro in the months ahead. One is to continue spending to help his election chances. Already, the Chinese have suggested they are willing to continue lending to Venezuela at extraordinarily high interest rates in exchange for future oil deliveries - as well as purchases of Chinese household appliances as vote-getting tools.

The other alternative would be to devalue, i.e. taxing importers. This would immediately exacerbate the slowing momentum in the economy, as importers would be forced to pass on the increase to consumers in the form of higher prices. The purchasing power of Venezuelans in their ability to spend USD on imported goods would also fall.

Most Venezuelan economists simply assume the government has no choice but to devalue, and many are predicting this in the short term. But without any real grasp on the shape of public finances as well as lenders' willingness to provide financing, it is not clear that the day of reckoning is around the corner. True, official dollars are scarce, which would suggest devaluation is in the works. However, this could also suggest that the government is biding its time, waiting to open its coffers when the election is announced.

In a country where few things are certain, one thing is clear: chavismo will do anything it takes to win an election. If that means postponing painful decisions until after the ballots have been counted, so be it. This will be bad for the economy but good for his chances of holding on to power.

Photo by RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images