Women’s rights in Indonesia: progress amid the division

Jan 24, 2022
Indonesian President Joko Widodo

Resistance to proposed legislation against sexual violence underlines the uphill task faced by moderates seeking change in a male-dominated society.

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo is finally realising that human rights are gender-inclusive, that Indonesian women’s anger may carry more clout than the menace of the religious right, and that the Me Too movement isn’t just a fleeting foreign fad.

This is the best explanation for his sudden decision this month to say in public: “I hope that the bill on the crime of sexual violence will soon be passed so that it can provide maximum protection for victims of sexual violence in the country.” He could have made similar calls at any time during the past six years while the proposed law was in hibernation, but he lacked the will to confront hardliners bent on dilution and delay.

The current criminal code recognises sexual violence as molestation, adultery and rape. Forced sex in marriage is not illegal and, until recently, was considered a matter to whisper, not broadcast. Five years ago there were 2979 reports of sexual violence – just 172 were allegations of marital rape. Activists claim the real number is far higher as only the bravest speak out.

Tengku Zulkarnain, a former deputy secretary-general of the Council of Islamic Scholars who is hostile to the bill, explained his position to a television audience: “If desire wants, then it [sex] must happen. The wife can just lie down or sleep, it doesn’t hurt.”

National Commission on Violence against Women commissioner Mariana Amiruddin reportedly told a Jakarta website: “If wives are forced, they cannot refuse. It means that wives are merely seen as sex slaves.”

New laws have been demanded by NGOs since 2012. Their campaign gained momentum in 2016 after 14 drunks raped and murdered a 14-year-old schoolgirl in Bengkulu on the west coast of Sumatra. (Gang leader Zainal, 23, has been sentenced to death. Others have been jailed for up to 20 years.)

Activists want domestic violence and intimidation to be treated as criminal conduct and the government to provide protection and recovery assistance for victims. The original bill defined nine types of sexual violence, but concessions made during debate have cut these to four.

Islamic politicians from the Prosperous Justice Party and other conservatives insist the reforms have been engineered by pro-Western stirrers promoting a “liberal feminist agenda with a permissive attitude towards free sex and LGBT”. They claim the bill is out of line with religious and traditional values and will lead to promiscuity and births out of wedlock.

Only recently has the media started to highlight cases of brutality against women in this “men first” society. An outrageous example of official discrimination occurred in Aceh province this month where a woman was flogged 100 times for adultery – briefly paused because she was in too much pain. The government officer involved received 15 lashes. Regional prosecutor Ivan Najjar Alavi reportedly said the court handed down different sentences because the woman had confessed to having sex in a palm oil plantation while the man pleaded not guilty.

In 2005 Jakarta reached a peace deal with the Free Aceh Movement after 29 years of on-off fighting between separatist guerrillas and the army that resulted in 15,00 deaths. To reach a ceasefire, Aceh was allowed to use sharia law. This permits whipping for offences such as gambling, adultery, drinking alcohol and gay sex. The public punishments which draw crowds with cameras have long been strongly condemned by international and local human rights organisations. In 2017 Widodo called for an end to the brutality. All protests have been ignored.

The role of women in Indonesia has long been defined by men. The nation’s government-approved heroine is the 19th century aristocratic Javanese Raden Adjeng Kartini, who died in 1904 aged 25 after giving birth. Although she condemned polygamy she accepted an arranged marriage to a local leader with three wives.

Kartini advocated for girls’ access to a full education and a ban on child marriage. Both are now the law although not the practice. According to Lies Marcoes of Rumah KitaB, a research institute advocating for the rights of the marginalised, Indonesia has the second-highest rate of child marriage in ASEAN. One in nine girls under 18 quit school to wed. Few relationships survive.

Kartini’s fame rests on published letters she sent to friends in the Netherlands arguing for equality and critical of Dutch control. Indonesia’s first president Soekarno, a notorious womaniser who had nine known relationships, found the mild, self-taught feminist a safe symbol for his anti-colonialism and made her April 21 birthday a national holiday. In case this encouraged ambition among women to move beyond their station, second president Soeharto created an organisation of public servants’ wives called Dharma Wanita. Until his fall in 1998, this kept women close to the stove, sink and bed and distant from books – unless needed for compulsory family welfare training.

Julia Suryakusuma, author of State Ibuism: The Social Construction of Womanhood in the Indonesian New Order, says Soeharto’s authoritarian regime defined women first as a husband’s loyal partner. Then she was expected to be the children’s educator, household manager and generator of extra income while still “a functioning member of society”.

The scene is not entirely bleak. A 2020 World Bank study supported by Australia found that “Indonesia has made considerable progress toward gender equality over the past decade, with improved rates of literacy, school enrolment, and employment, as well as policies to pave the way for a more gender-equitable society”.

The Javanese phrase “kanca wingking” translates as “a friend behind”. It used to mean a woman’s place in the street and home but is now seldom heard. Men can be seen nursing babies, pushing prams and hanging out washing, even in villages. Elderly couples in Muslim garb occasionally hold hands in public, a rare sight last century.

Although men are overwhelmingly in positions of authority, women are featuring more in politics and business. Six of the 34 members of the Cabinet are women and there are 120 women in the 575-seat People’s Representative Council – above 20 per cent for the first time.

Just how far these movements will drive change in Indonesian society’s thinking about respect and equality remains to be seen.

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