‘Anti-Porn’ Law Could Threaten Indonesian Women

By Soe Tjen Marching

JAKARTA ~ Two weeks ago, Indonesia’s parliament passed an “anti-porn” bill, which bans anyone from wearing clothes or promoting material that could incite “sexual desire.”

Although regulations regarding pornography are important, there is some concern that there will be other implications, for instance for women’s rights, even down to what is permissible to wear in public. In addition, the law also criminalizes homosexual activities which previously were not illegal in Indonesia.

The head of the special committee that drafted the bill, Balkan Kaplale, insists that it will protect Indonesians’ morality, and guard women and children against sexual exploitation.

But by putting the blame on the “cause” of sexual arousal, this law victimizes women rather than protects them, allowing perpetrators to argue, for example, that the victim provoked incidents of rape or sexual harassment.

In Indonesia, a passed bill becomes law after it is signed by the president or 30 days after it is ratified by parliament.

However, only three days after the law was ratified, three exotic dancers in Mangga Besar, West Jakarta, were arrested, while the managers and owner of the club were left alone.

In fact, the police detained these women based on a provision from a previous draft of this bill.

Unfortunately, this victimization and negative stereotyping of women in relation to sexuality is not new in Indonesia.

Under former president Soeharto’s “New Order” government, which was dominated by the military and characterized by a weakened civil society, emphasis was put on the purity of women, stressing the importance of their roles as loyal wives and good mothers.

After Suharto’s resignation in 1998, however, Indonesians took advantage of their newfound liberties to express their opinions and criticize authority.

Several female Indonesian authors, including Ayu Utami, Dewi Lestari, Clara Ng, Djenar Maesa Ayu and Herlinatiens, gained popularity, writing new roles for women, particularly when it comes to sexuality. Similarly, Indonesian film directors, such as Mira Lesmana, Nia Dinata, and Sekar Ayu Asmara, have become widely known in the Indonesian film industry for portraying multi-faceted, complex Indonesian women.

In their works, many of them expressed criticism against sexual restrictions placed on women in Indonesia. If the anti-porn bill is ratified, the works of these women may be affected, since the new law could label their books pornographic.

Since early 2006, several women’s groups – Komnas Perempuan (Forum on Women), Kapal Perempuan (Women’s Boat) and Aliansi Mawar Putih (White Rose Alliance) – have protested against the bill, which has been pending for several years. On 22 April 2006, thousands of artists, activists, students and civilians gathered at Monas Monument in Jakarta carrying giant posters which read: “Indonesia is not America, but it is not Saudi Arabia either.”

We reject the anti-porn bill.” And: “We reject pornography, but we reject the anti-porn bill.”

More recently, Ayu Utami wrote a play, Sidang Susila (Susila’s Trial), which demonstrates how the bill could violate women’s rights.

A week after the bill was passed in parliament, a well-known actor, Butet Kartaredjasa, performed the work in Sidang Susila Teater Gandrik in Jakarta to protest the new law.

Despite the prevailing impression that this bill is widely supported by all Muslims, Islamic organisations like the Liberal Islam Network (JIL) in Jakarta, the Institute for Islamic and Social Studies (LKIS) in Yogyakarta and the Institute for Religion and Social Studies (LKAS) in Surabaya have voiced their strong opposition to the bill.

They claim that the bill will limit freedom of expression in art, including film and literature, and that Islam has been inaccurately used by certain groups to justify the ratification of the bill. These groups have created blogs highlighting articles criticising the bill and organized demonstrations and press conferences.

Non-Muslim minority groups, especially in West Papua, Bali, East Nusa Tenggara and North Sumatra, have also fiercely opposed this law because they claim that their local customs and traditions will be threatened by it. In West Papua, for instance, men and women go bare-breasted.

In Bali, nude statues proliferate and the Balinese people are also worried that the new law will negatively affect their tourism industry, as many foreigners may no longer be able to wear bathing suits, sundresses or shorts at the beaches.

Recently, governmental officials from these regions have gone so far as to threaten to split from the Republic of Indonesia in protest.

If the president signs the bill into law, the government may gain more popularity amongst the conservatives. However, it will simultaneously offend minority religious groups, as well as women, splitting its support base and potentially threatening the unity of the nation.

To achieve common ground between different groups, the law must be completely revised. The term “pornography” must be made more specific and implicitly or explicitly encourage respect for women’s bodies.

A national dialogue with minority groups – as well as feminists – to define exactly what pornography is will definitely help. The issue of subordination of women in pornography must be the bill’s primary focus.

Soe Tjen Marching is a researcher and tutor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London.

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