A new push for women's rights
July-September 2016
By: Devi Asmarani

In late April, Kate Walton, a Jakarta-based Australian feminist activist, discovered a little-known news story in a local publication about a 14-year-old girl named Yuyun who was raped, beaten and stabbed to death by a group of men and youths three weeks earlier in Bengkulu Province, Sumatra. She found the report while trawling the Internet for stories about women killed by men in Indonesia, a personal project she had recently embarked on. Baffled by the lack of public reaction to the gruesome case, Walton posted on the Facebook page Jakarta Feminist Discussion Group asking if any of its more than 400 members had heard of it.

Nobody had at the time, but it was not long before the story started to gain traction, as group members began to share the news on their own social networks. Kartika Jahja, an independent musician and outspoken women’s rights activist, kicked off a viral video campaign via her movement Kolektif Betina (the Female Collective) with the hashtag #NyalaUntukYuyun (Light a Candle for Yuyun). Indonesian celebrities showed their support for the cause and a few days later women’s rights activists held a candlelight vigil across the street from the Presidential Palace. They also urged people to “sound out the danger alarm,” either by blowing a whistle or honking their vehicle horns three times that evening in solidarity and to show that sexual violence is an urgent crisis in Indonesia.

If the national media had ignored the case or chose to bury it, they soon began to run follow-up stories and commentaries on the tragic rape and murder. Television stations invited pundits to talk about sexual violence. The story even made it into international media. Soon, government officials and politicians chimed in, although not always supportively. Some showed their ignorance on the issue of sexual violence: one politician questioned the fact that the girl was walking home alone from school, which made her vulnerable to being attacked. However, President Joko Widodo called for the strongest punishment for the perpetrators, signing a presidential decree in late May authorizing the death penalty, chemical castration and longer prison sentences for child sex offenders.

When the news first went viral, Lentera Indonesia, a support group for victims of sexual violence, and had just kicked off a six-month social media campaign to raise awareness about sexual violence in Indonesia. The hashtags #MulaiBicara or #TalkAboutIt feature discussions, movie screenings, musical concerts, a design competition and “call to action” social media engagement throughout the year. The goal is to bring public attention to the pervasive problem of sexual violence and begin a conversation on ways to end it. We immediately seized the momentum from Yuyun’s death to begin an online petition, urging the House of Representatives to pass the long-awaited bill to end sexual violence, and in less than 24 hours more than 50,000 people had signed the petition.

The tragic and senseless death of this young girl, a reportedly exemplary student who came from an impoverished family, is a sad reminder of Jyoti Singh, an Indian woman who died after being gang raped during a bus ride in Delhi. Like Jyoti’s case, which incited nationwide outrage and prompted legal reform to address sexual crimes in India, Yuyun’s death created an opportunity to talk about the prevalence of sexual violence in Indonesia, a legal system that has proved inadequate in prosecuting sexual crimes, and a deeply rooted patriarchal culture that shifts blame for assaults onto female victims. Every day, 35 Indonesian women experience sexual violence, the equivalent of three women every two hours, according to 2014 data from the National Commission on Violence Against Women.

What I find remarkable about this campaign is not only the effectiveness of digital activism in shining a light on an otherwise ignored issue, but the emergence of a vocal and involved brand of feminism among young Indonesian women in a country currently seized by increasing religious conservatism and fundamentalism. Their emergence owes to the predominance of social media in Indonesia, where one-third of its 250 million people actively use the Internet and engage regularly in social media. Social media allows like-minded people to connect and engage, sometimes resulting in impactful action on the ground. The young and proud digital-age feminists on social media in Indonesia have not only successfully amplified Yuyun’s case; in a small way, they created a space, however small at the time of this writing, to begin a conversation on rape culture in Indonesia to counter the predominant public discourse that perceives sexual violence as a morality issue linked to religion.

Throughout Indonesian history, women’s groups and movements have influenced social change. Some of these movements are formally structured as organizations and have played a great role in shaping policies aimed at protecting women and children and encouraging women’s empowerment and participation in society. But the less- structured movements, whether community-based (even down to the village level), faith-based, interest-based or even loosely grouped individuals with the same ideological interests such as the Facebook page mentioned above, are also increasingly playing a role in normalizing the empowerment of women in Indonesia, affecting societal change from the bottom up.

It is a strong women’s agency and the revisionist nature of women’s movements that I see to be a key factor not only in mainstreaming gender equality in Indonesia, but also in winning the ongoing contest between religious conservatives trying to increase their influence in politics and society and those who want to uphold a gender-egalitarian democracy in Indonesia.

Political Islam and gender implication

After the fall of the Soeharto regime in 1998, the strong spirit of political reform and international pressure led the state to accommodate demands to protect the rights of women, resulting in important policies both at the national and regional level. At the same time, decentralization of power, giving greater autonomy to provinces and districts, triggered a vibrant democracy at the local level. This quickly gave rise to religion-based identity politics among local elites, often for short-term benefit, leading to the rapid emergence of bylaws regulating morality based on Islamic values. Many of these bylaws discriminate against women and minority groups.

In 2015, the National Commission on Violence Against Women found 389 discriminatory regulations issued across Indonesia. Four of these were national-level policies, while the remaining 385 were bylaws issued by provincial, district and municipal administrations. Of these bylaws, 82 percent directly discriminate against women. The rest target minority groups based on faith, gender expression and sexual orientation. The blatantly discriminative nature of Shariah-based bylaws poses a serious constitutional challenge to Indonesia and, unfortunately, not enough is being done to address this problem. 

Women are the most affected by Shariah-based regulations. According to the commission, more than one-third of the bylaws have the potential to criminalize women, such as through arrests for suspicion of prostitution. One-quarter of other bylaws regulate women’s bodies by requiring them to wear Islamic dress including a jilbab. One district in Aceh Province bans women from wearing pants, while another district makes it illegal for women to straddle when riding pillion on a motorcycle. There are also many bylaws that restrict the movement of women through curfews or require that they be accompanied by a male blood relative or their husband after certain hours. Some bylaws target female workers, for example by requiring women who want to become migrant workers to get spousal permission. Increasingly, there are bylaws that impose strict observance of religious rituals, such as requiring civil servants seeking a promotion or couples planning to get married to be able to read the Koran.

The politicization of Islam means using religion and the interpretation of its teachings to achieve certain political aims. It is an alarming trend for pro-democracy activists, but more so for women’s rights activists. Although in many cases this practice seems to be driven by short-term political gain (a way to polish a candidate’s religious credentials and project an image of integrity ahead of an election), it also points to signs of growing religious fundamentalism in Indonesia. Women’s rights activists as well as religious tolerance watchdogs are concerned that behind the trend is a longer-term ambition to make Islam the basis of national policies – and eventually turn Indonesia into an Islamic state.

Unsurprisingly, it was feminist and women’s movements that were the first to sound the alarm early in the post-Soeharto years, when most people dismissed growing religious conservatism in politics as part of a “political euphoria” that would die down over time. It later became clear that the problem wasn’t going anywhere. Women are particularly vulnerable to religious fundamentalism. A key characteristic of religious fundamentalism in many countries is the existence of policies that regulate gender relations, placing women’s positions in the domestic realm and putting them in a subordinate position by allowing polygamy and child marriage.

Fundamentalism comes in many forms, the least accepted of which are violence-prone groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front. Fundamentalism also exists in social institutions and has begun to dominate Indonesian culture with populist appeal. And most alarmingly, it makes use of democratic means to put in power people who would later implement a strong Islamic agenda and make Shariah the primary basis of Indonesian law.

Although most Shariah-based laws are at the regional level, the influence of the politicization of Islam is also strongly felt at the national level. There are at least eight national laws that have used or adopted Islamic values as their basis. The most controversial of these is the 2008 Anti-Pornography Law. Women’s rights groups worried the law would target minority groups and that its implementation would criminalize women, but the Constitutional Court rejected petitions for a judicial review of the law.

The Constitutional Court and Supreme Court have both shown a predisposition toward religious-based laws in issuing rulings. Last year, the Constitutional Court rejected two petitions for a judicial review of the 1974 Marriage Law. The first challenge was to the law’s effective banning of interfaith unions, and the second sought to amend the minimum marriageable age of women from 16 to 18. The Supreme Court, which has the power to review regional bylaws, rejected a judicial review of a bylaw on prostitution in Tangerang, Banten Province, which critics say discriminates against women and has resulted in the wrongful arrests of women suspected of prostitution. The court also threw out a petition for a judicial review of a similar bylaw issued by Bantul district in Yogyakarta Province.

The National Commission on Violence Against Women has worked with the Ministry of Home Affairs for the past seven years to repeal discriminative bylaws on the ground that they are unconstitutional. But to this day only one out of 389 discriminative bylaws has been revoked. That was a bylaw the district government in Tasikmalaya, West Java Province, issued that stipulated the punishment of forced marriage for unmarried couples found together late at night. 

For the most part, the national government appears reluctant to revoke religious-based bylaws due to their politically sensitive nature. Activists who do advocacy work in the field say it is risky to criticize discriminative bylaws, that it is the fastest way to be labeled “anti-Islamic” or “anti-Shariah.” President Joko vowed last year to review some 3,000 “problematic bylaws,” but all of the approximately 700 bylaws that were eventually repealed were related to locally imposed taxes or investment matters. As Sri Wiyanti Eddyono, a gender expert studying rising fundamentalism and its impact on women in Indonesia, said: “The fundamentalist movements are structured, they are well funded and transnational, and they have multiple strategies that they execute through the democratic process and cultural influence.”  

Rising fundamentalism means increasing religious and social conservatism in Indonesia, which bolsters the patriarchal culture. In a conservative society, the first thing to be regulated is sexuality. More Indonesian women than ever wear a jilbab, possibly simply bowing to peer pressure. Most local television channels now have religious evangelical shows and some of the popular clerics who host them frequently preach about women’s domestic roles and subservience to their husbands. Polygamy, in the past a slightly taboo subject, has become more acceptable, with some elected officials (including former Vice President Hamzah Haz, who had two wives while in office) being open about their polygamous marriages.

“There is certainly a creeping conservatism that comes through family, culture, education,” said Gadis Arivia, founder of the feminist publication Jurnal Perempuan. “There are efforts to replace national traditions with Arabic traditions, for example making the jilbab more mainstream to replace Indonesia’s traditional clothing.” At the same time, cases of religious intolerance are increasing. The Wahid Institute, a think tank and religious freedom watchdog, recorded a 23 percent increase in violations against freedom of religion in 2015, mostly in the form of closing down places of worship or prohibiting their construction, as well as obstructing the celebration or the performance of rituals of certain faiths. In most instances, security forces just watched and did not protect the minority religious group being attacked.

Feminist gatherings, too, have been increasingly targeted by religious fundamentalist mobs. On Valentine’s Day this year in the city of Yogyakarta, women supporting One Billion Rising, a global movement to end sexual violence against women, were attacked by a fundamentalist group. Two months later in the same city, police officers and members of hard-line Islamic groups forced the closure of Lady Fast 2016, a festival of music, art and discussions for women.

Law enforcement’s collusion with hard-line groups in cases of religious intolerance, as well as the government’s reluctance to repeal discriminative laws, demonstrates the state’s failure to play its role as an arbiter in the ongoing contest for what role religion should play in Indonesia. This failure has further strengthened religious fundamentalism, and it spells bad news for the future of Indonesian democracy.

“Fundamentalist movements become stronger when the government’s power is waning,” said Sri, an associate researcher at Semarak Cerlang Nusa Consultancy Research and Education for Social Transformation (SCN Crest). Amid the absence of government intervention, social movements, in particular women’s ones, have played an important role in countering the widespread influence of religious fundamentalism in the day-to-day lives of Indonesian women.  

Success and failure

Women’s movements occupy a wide spectrum in Indonesia, covering organizations and loosely grouped individuals, all with the same goal of reducing gender subordination in social, economic and political life. This has always been the case, dating back to 1927, when the Indonesian Women’s Congress became an umbrella forum for various women’s organizations ranging from faith-based ones to feminist groups.

The stigmatization of feminists as radical, morally loose man-haters during the New Order regime has prompted many women’s organizations to shun any association with feminism even to this day – even if they believe in the same end goal of gender equality. Furthermore, the country’s nationalist and Islamist ideologies label feminism a liberal, Western product that pits men against women and is not in sync with Indonesian values.

It was the violent rapes of ethnic Chinese women during the May 1998 riots in Jakarta, which forced Soeharto from office, that first mobilized women’s movements across Indonesia in a significant way. In the post-Soeharto period, these movements produced achievements: the establishment of the independent and government-sanctioned National Commission on Violence Against Women and the 2004 Law on the Eradication of Domestic Violence. The latter was passed after six years of advocacy by women’s organizations grouped under the National Policy Advocacy Network for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It wasn’t an easy task.

Back then, Indonesian society still perceived domestic violence as a family matter, not a crime, and reporting it was equivalent to humiliating one’s husband and family. Passage of the law was a long political process that owed much to a successful media campaign, as well as effective engagement with various stakeholders, including religious leaders, to support the bill. “What we were doing was changing a culture,” said Sri of SCN Crest, who was heavily involved in the effort.

Since then, more women have come forward to report domestic abuse. There are now more institutions involved in meeting the needs of victims of domestic abuse, including women’s crisis centers run by nonprofit organizations and government-run integrated service centers; some police precincts have also begun to set up women and children’s units. At Indonesia’s religious courts, which officiate weddings and hear divorces of Indonesian Muslims, judges have been issued guidelines on how to identify divorce cases that may involve domestic violence. Around 70 percent of divorces cases in Indonesia involve domestic violence, according to the religious courts.

It’s not perfect. The government-run service centers still don’t operate effectively and are at the mercy of whether local governments will help the cause. In general, there are not enough social workers and legal assistance for victims of domestic violence is lacking. Patriarchal culture still rules law enforcement, often making victims feel judged and unprotected when they want to report their cases. The law also doesn’t cover abuse within intimate relationships outside of marriage or dating relationships, which make up nearly one-quarter of violence against women. But there has been clear progress as well: more domestic violence victims are winning their cases in court.

Advocacy for the law against sexual violence mobilized women’s movements across the spectrum, from feminist groups to mainstream women’s organizations that don’t identify themselves as feminist. Religious figures supported the movement by reinterpreting religious teaching to criticize violence against women. Perhaps, because they felt a personal connection, even those outside the usual circle of women activists, from policewomen to the wives of Marine officers, contributed to the movement.

If the women’s movement was united across the board on the violence issue, however, it was badly fractured by the anti-pornography bill. The bill pitted religious women activists, who supported it as a tool to protect children and women from sexual exploitation, against nonreligious feminist groups and human rights organizations, which condemned it for legitimizing a regressive understanding of women’s sexuality and morality. Opposition to the anti-pornography bill was criticized as being un-Islamic and the issue quickly became a religious one.

Today, women’s movements have been criticized for being too fragmented and preoccupied with their own organizations and programs to collaborate with other social movements and make a bigger impact. In her 2010 working paper, “The Challenges of Feminists in Forming Alliance with Women’s Movements and Other Social Movements in Indonesia,” Sri pointed out that pragmatic and tactical alliances were linked to institutional programs, while donor support may be short- or medium-term driven.

But as the success of the advocacy for the domestic violence bill showed, short- to medium-term collaborations can be effective in affecting great change, though much may depend on the issue. Such collaboration will be important in the latest push for the bill to end sexual violence. The bill would be a vast improvement on the current Criminal Code, which is seen as siding too much with perpetrators rather than victims. Unlike the Criminal Code, the bill places the burden of proof on the perpetrator.

Carrying the torch

Whatever their ideology, Indonesian women have been and will be an important factor in the ongoing struggle against attempts by political Islam to cement the country’s patriarchal culture. A study as far back as 2007 by Women’s Empowerment in Muslim Contexts Indonesia found that “resistance” to increasing efforts to redomesticate and control women often took form in community-based empowerment initiatives by propagating the values of equality and justice, and providing access to education and information to women. The challenge is enormous, but there are opportunities for women’s groups. 

Lies Marcoes-Natsir, director of Rumah Kita Bersama, which recently launched a study on women and fundamentalism in Indonesia, argues that deradicalizing religious hard-liners must involve women. Women are active agents in the implementation and distribution of fundamentalist values within hard-line groups – but they also prove to be effective in resisting values they find unsuitable. Their resistance – whether voiceless or vocal – and their influence are reflected in the fact that religious fundamentalist movements in Indonesia have not always resorted to violence. Women are a key weapon on the “battlefield” pitting modernism against fundamentalism.


Devi Asmarani is chief editor and co-founder of Magdalene. co, a Jakarta-based online feminist publication.

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