Seeking balance in diverse Indonesia



'My crotch does not belong to the government,' read a board held up in a protest against a series of proposed updates to the Dutch-era criminal code in Indonesia.

Students protest in Jakarta on 27 September 2019.(Photo by Ed Wray/Getty Images)After a series of violent protests and mass demonstrations, President Joko Widowo announced on 20 September that the 628-article draft bill had been halted. Though several articles targeted basic freedoms and an anti-corruption institution, the regulations around gender, sex and sexuality stood out.

The ban on extramarital (and pre-marital) sex, punishable by up to one year in prison, stood out as particularly troubling. Registered marriage is an undefined concept in the country. According to the Australian Aid Report 2015, not all marriages are registered under the Civil Registry or Religious Affairs Office. Fifty-five per cent of couples in the poorest households do not have an official marriage certificate. Furthermore, couples married under the country's indigenous faith systems are not recognised. 

As vocabulary in the bill is vague, any union that falls under the term 'obscene act' could be criminalised. This linguistic nuance could be used to hound and target LGBTQIA+ people.

Couples living together outside of marriage could face up to six months in prison and can be reported by a village head. Though homosexuality is not illegal in Indonesia, same-sex unions and marriage are not legally accepted. As a result, same-sex couples could be imprisoned for de facto relationships (or other non-heteronormative arrangements).

Abortion could have carried a maximum of a four year prison term if no evidence of a medical emergency or sexual assault could be proved. Sexual assault is rife in the country; according to the United Nations' Global Database on Violence Against Women, 'lifetime physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence' stands at 18 per cent and child marriage at 14 per cent. The Eradication of Sexual Violence bill has been stuck in parliament since 2014 and has been reduced from its original 155 to 59 articles by members debating its ratification.

The restriction of abortion means females have limited choice over their relationships, bodies and livelihoods. Sexual assault examinations and court cases can re-traumatise victims, sometimes more than the actual assault. Womens' reproductive health is also endangered because they are unable to access basic information about their bodies, while limited discourse around acceptable sexual practices (such as consent and boundaries) increases the likelihood of gender based violence. 


"The legitimation of local legislation means that there is a legal foundation to enact discriminatory beliefs in a climate of moral panic."


The changes also sought to legitimise various 'living' legislation that included Sharia and customary legislation at a local level. In the Aceh province, local rules already discriminate against consensual, heterosexual relationships. When two rice farmers left their son and his girlfriend home alone, a group of young men from their village raided the house and arrested them.

This surveillance is exercised more harshly against LGBTQIA+ unions in Aceh. In March 2018, a university couple suspected of being gay and a transgender person were rounded up by local people and handed over to the Sharia police. The region is also infamous for the public flogging of gay men.

This discrimination is set against the backdrop of anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiment running through the country. Indonesia Survey Institute identified LGBTQIA+ people as the most disliked minority. According to the Jarkata Post, in 2016 academics and activists asked the Constitutional Court to annul a number of articles in the Criminal Code (KUHP) regarding any form of homosexual sex.

In May 2017, West Java Police Chief Anton Charliyan announced the creation of a special taskforce to hound LGBTQIA+ people. Days later, police raided a gym and sauna in northern Jarkarta during an alleged sex party. The police detained 141 men and charged ten for violation of pornography rules.

The legitimation of local legislation such as Aceh's means there is a legal foundation to enact discriminatory beliefs in a climate of moral panic.

Groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) have been pushing for Indonesia to be ruled by Shariah for years. They played a key role in the defeat of Jakarta Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (also called Ahok), and staged a mass protest before the vote. They argued that he had insulted the Quran, leading to his arrest for blasphemy and conviction for up to two years in prison.

Understanding the importance of conservative votes, President Joko Widowo recruited cleric Ma'ruf Amin for his 2018 campaign. Currently the Vice President, Amin is a supporter of Shariah and also believes homosexuality should be criminalised.

Though hardliners and (even moderate) conservatives might approve of the proposed changes, the large scale social unrest demonstrated that the multifaceted electorate is far from dormant. They demanded to be heard and considered.

With Widowo's decision to reconsider the proposed updates, policymakers and parliamentarians should seek to initiate balanced and nuanced reforms that help liberal lifestyles and conservative values coexist. While appeasing the conservative portion of the electorate is a good election tactic, ignoring a diverse electorate is a recipe for disaster in the long term.



Devana SenanayakeDevana Senanayake is a political reporter and radio producer focusing on intercultural racism, immigration, de-colonisation, diasporas and food. In 2017, she won Writer's Victoria Women of Colour Commission for her essay Misplaced in Pop about the misplacement of South Asian actors in Western media. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @dsenanayake16

Main image: Students protest in Jakarta on 27 September 2019.(Photo by Ed Wray/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Devana Senanayake, Indonesia, LGBTQI, Joko Widowo



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Existing comments

Indonesia is extremely diverse and its many different ethnicities and their cultures are sometimes opaque to outsiders. There are certainly competing voices clamouring loudly for national attention. Aceh, where Islam first came to Indonesia and with extremely strong connections to the Middle East, was always the most Islamic part of the country. Other parts of the country, such as Java, with its complex, multi-layered culture, are considered more tolerant. It should be borne in mind that Indonesia, like other relatively tolerant Muslim majority countries, like Egypt. has a different cultural mindset to the West, so that the sort of society the people there may want may not be something like ours. The relatively tolerant national Muslim organisations, Nahdlatul Ulema and Masyumi, are now competing with more hard-line Islamicist organisations, many funded from the bottomless pockets of the Saudis, both officially and unofficially. President Jokowi has himself been accused of being both Chinese and not a Muslim. Both accusations are patently untrue, but, in the current hothouse situation there, are believed by some. There are many tolerant people taking action against proscriptive laws. They deserve our support. What we must not do is to attempt to lecture all Indonesians from our supposed Olympian Heights of moral righteousness. That would be extremely counterproductive.
Edward Fido | 30 September 2019

It's doubtful Jokowi is "ignoring" the diverse electorate but somewhere between remaining popular with conservatives and perhaps having his own moral compass he is strong enough to take a considered approach to the complex. Indonesia's (many regional) cultures may not quite be ready to consider more than monogamy / marital relationships as a potential positive legislation; it's a nation struggling with STDs and high rate of single "unmarried" mothers with zero in the way of social services to support them. Alimony and child support from fathers is rare; maybe having a law with potential jail time empowers the single mum with a bargaining chip? Is that to be denied them? I'd suggest it's a bit simplistic to impose Western / Australian morality with the LGBTIQ+ cause; it only just cleared 60% support here in Australia and I can't see that level of liberalism across the archipelago...yet. Widodo could learn from Australia and gift $900 to everyone and hope they forget his transgressions.
ray | 01 October 2019

Thank you Devana for your article on the attempts to introduce legislation against pre-marital and extramarital sex in Indonesia. I suspect that this has come about from the demands being made by the growing fundamentalist Muslim movement in the country. And, as others have pointed out, because of Indonesia's ethnic diversity, this move will be considered differently across the Indonesian Archipelago. Having followed the human rights situation in Indonesia for many years, my first thought was that if this law is sucessfully introduced and enforced, Indonesian prisons will be crammed to overflowing with prisoners from the Indonesian military (TNI) and police (POLRI). Both have had a long history of human rights abuses - not just in Indonesia, but also in West Papua, East Timor and Acheh. Apart from the history of genocide, TNI and POLRI have committed sickening human rights abuses - including the rape of women as a weapon.. It was always going to be difficult for President Joko Widodo to live up to his promise to the West Papuans to improve their human rights with the TNI still in control there and also still having a large influence in the Indonesian political arena This will only change when the international community helps Indonesian human rights activists and other progressive Indonesians to bring the war criminals in the TNI to justice.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 02 October 2019

Edward, just to clarify: the second largest muslim organisation in Indonesia is Muhamadyia. It is called "modernist", which does not mean that they have modern attitudes. Quite the opposite; they use modern means to politicise and forward fairly hard, tho non-violent means of favouring Muslim interests. When you talk about moderate conservatives, in our Australian terms, virtually all Moslems in Indonesia are conservative - except for the radicals. Very few Moslems have any time for religious diversity, and the feeling is reciprocated by most Christians. Like the rest of Indonesian politics, it is an unsavoury mess. But one must maintain faith that the country is on a long learning curve towards moderation and tolerance.
Pat Mahony | 05 November 2019


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