Indonesian women demand their rights

In Indonesia, social resistance is mounting against a law banning sex before marriage and the government's weakening of the anti-corruption authorities. A report by Zora Rahman from Yogyakarta

By Zora Rahman

The backyard of the Sangkring Art Space in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta wasn't really crowded - the topic was probably too difficult for that: Various organisations had organised a joint event called "Gerak 28 September" ("Movement 28 September") to mark the "International Day for Safe Abortions". Between colourful art installations there was information for victims of sexual violence and on reproductive health, as well as tips on sewing your own sanitary pads and lots of music with socially critical texts. The mood was emotional.

Some women sported punk hairstyles and were there to get a new tattoo, others wore headscarves and flowing dresses. What united them was their interest in controlling themselves and their bodies. " In Indonesia, these themes are still taboo," says artist Fitriani Dwi Kurniasih, who co-organised the event. "It is important to educate people about unwanted pregnancies and safe abortions, otherwise they will go to a traditional healer without being aware of the risks".

Sex education to be punishable by law

All this could soon no longer be possible. The draft for a new penal code in Indonesia (publicly known as RKUHP) envisages, among other things, that even information about abortion should be banned. In addition, any sexual relationship outside marriage could become punishable. This would apply to cohabiting outside marriage, flat-sharing among people of different sexes and to homosexual couples.

"The state is interfering far too much in the private lives of its citizens", complains Hera Diani, editor-in-chief of the feminist magazine "Magdalene". "I find the paragraph on reproduction and contraception one of the most critical. It states that even health advisors or parents and teachers could be punished for providing their children with sex education – that is ridiculous!"

Tens of thousands of students took to the streets across the country at the end of September to protest against a watering down of anti-corruption laws, violence in West Papua and apparent government inaction in the face of huge rainforest fires.


Students protest in Jakarta on 24.09.2019 against the deployment of additional troops in the restive province of Papua, the watering down of corruption legislation and a law prohibiting sex before marriage (photo: DW)
Widerstand gegen Diskriminierung und Bevormundung: Die Proteste vom vergangenen September richteten sich gegen Pläne für ein härteres Strafrecht im bevölkerungsreichsten muslimischen Land der Welt. Demnach soll Sex zwischen Unverheirateten mit bis zu sechs Monaten Haft bestraft werden können. Zudem sollen künftig auch Gefängnisstrafen möglich sein, wenn jemand den Präsidenten beleidigt.

At the moment, however, hardly anything moves the Indonesians as much as the planned new penal code, whose new moral paragraphs could affect everyone personally - especially the younger generation. Hashtag #semuakena("It affects everybody") was one of the most posted until recently, as was #tolakrkuhp ("reject RKUHP").

In Yogyakarta, the protesters poured out from three directions onto the Gejayan crossroads. Here, 20 years ago, their parents' generation fought for the democratisation of the country. Beside banners with political slogans, there are colourful posters saying "My sex life is not your business" and "Don't throw us in prison for love". But the funny slogans and respectable campus uniforms cannot hide the fact that the demonstrators are serious: they are the biggest student protests since the mass demonstrations that forced the former dictator Suharto to resign in 1998.n.

While it remained peaceful in Yogyakarta, street battles with the police took place in several other cities. President Joko Widodo also recognised the seriousness of the protests and postponed the adoption of the bill. Now the new parliament has to deal with it. New coalitions have been forged there, which will decide in the back room whether the tightened laws will be passed as planned or in a slightly diluted form.

"We must make compromises"

For Eddy Hiariej, it seems quite natural that such an important law reform would trigger controversy in a multicultural, multi-ethnic state like Indonesia. The 46-year-old professor of law teaches at the renowned Gadjah Mada University in Yogjakarta and has contributed to the controversial draft.

He is currently a popular guest on Indonesian talk shows, where with a bright smile and eloquent eloquence he tirelessly emphasises that the often criticised paragraphs are only a tiny fraction of a major piece of legislation that has been under development for more than 50 years. In fact, the previous Indonesian penal code dates back to the Dutch colonial period.

By contrast, the new law faculty building in which Hiariej's office is located is modern. While he is having lunch brought to him by an assistant, he explains that most critics have not read the law correctly and that many paragraphs are not as strict as they appear at first glance. At the same time, he warned against drawing parallels with Germany or other societies in the West.

"We must make compromises," Hiariej said. "LGBT, for example, does not fit into our culture. We have a Muslim majority and must respect their values," says the Muslim from Ambon. The fact that women are no longer allowed to go out alone in the evening is one such compromise: "This is a form of protection for the individual by the state. Women are very vulnerable as victims, so that we actually have to protect them more strongly.

Fitriani Dwi Kurniasih sees things differently. The 39-year-old artist often travels late into the night herself, going to exhibition openings or performing with her band. If the so-called "stray" paragraph were to come into force in its current form, this would hardly be possible, and the collaboration with her collective in the alternative art space "Survive Garage" would also be severely restricted by a quasi-exit ban for women in the evening.

"I'm afraid that men will dominate all evening events again. We have just tried to create a space in which everyone has equal rights and which is especially open to women," says the activist, who is involved in various women's and human rights groups. "This will certainly have an effect on our homosexual friends, for whom it is becoming increasingly difficult to express their wishes."

Between optimism and reality

On the evening before the event of "Gerak 28 September" she stood on the small stage in front of the colourfully painted wall of "Survive Garage" and sang about the discrimination of the little people, about social injustice and also about environmental destruction. The concert was part of the Climate Strike Week in Yogyakarta, which suffered slightly in the face of the huge student demos.

Young people in particular make up the alternative audience, some come from other provinces of Indonesia, some from abroad. "Given the current situation, my hopes for the future are indeed utopian," says Kurniasih. "But when I see the current student movement, I feel quite optimistic: they are very active and courageous."

Hera Diani is also pinning her hopes on the young generation: "Previously I thought that young people weren't critical, but they have been able to form a movement and express their opinions," says the 42-year-old journalist, who was herself active in the 1998 student protests.

She has no doubt that Indonesia urgently needs a new penal code. "But we have to involve the people, not negotiate behind closed doors. We must reject the draft until it no longer appears problematic: until women and minorities are no longer harassed and discriminated against as a result of legislation."

Zora Rahman

© Deutsche Welle/Qantara .de 2019