No, Indonesian students have not taken to the streets and almost besieged the parliament on several occasions in the last fortnight just to protest a revision of the Criminal Code (RKUHP), that further forbids casual and extramarital sex.
After several days of unrest in the capital of Indonesia, as well as across major cities of the country, the biggest student demonstrations since the fall of former strongman Suharto in 1998 have made international headlines. Many Western newspapers have published articles leading readers to think that the youth of Indonesia have been demonstrating against the criminalisation of sex outside marriage.
This is not the case. The revision of the bill, that could stiffen further the frame in which casual sex could be outlawed, is unlikely to be openly discussed by the students out of unease on the subject. Luckily, this particular revision has been put on hold for the moment thanks to President Joko Widodo. However, students were mostly on the streets regarding bills pertaining to labour, minerals, land, and freedom of speech.
The protesters are against the controversial way KPK leaders will now be chosen by the House of Representatives. They stand against the possibility of the Indonesian Military and National Police personnel holding civilian offices. They demand an end to the use of force in Papua and the instant release of political prisoners.
Demonstrators also requested that the corporations responsible for forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan have their permits revoked. They also demanded the resolution of all past human rights violations. Of course, among all the dedicated youths taking to the streets were some activists very concerned about the shrinking of individual freedoms brought by the revision regarding casual sex too.
Associations from civil society were also there for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, sexual reproductive rights, and contraceptive rights, all determined to face down the amendments newly voted by the very conservative lawmakers of the parliament. But they were only a minority.
The freedom to have sex outside of wedlock, or in adultery, is not the main concern of the Indonesian youth who gathered in anger on the doorstep of the Senayan house in September. First, because the revision doesn’t change much of what is already in place, contrary to what foreign headlines assert.
True, the lawmakers want to go one step further in the hardening of the law regarding consensual sex between unmarried people, encompassing same-sex relations, cohabitation, abortion, and the promotion of contraception. But let’s look at it closer.
Adultery is already forbidden. A husband and wife can already report their unfaithful spouse in order to file for a divorce. Civil servants and police officers can even lose their jobs in this case. The revised Criminal Code bill states that unmarried couples caught together could now face a maximum of six months in prison. But for charges to proceed, the “crime” has to be reported by a husband or wife. If there is no adultery, then a parent or child would need to make the report.
More worrying is the fact that village leaders would be entitled to lodge a complaint if the family doesn’t take the matter seriously. It’s an open door to moral harassment and social pressure and it could also be used as a personal weapon. But as we can see, this is not the sudden ban on sexual freedom as described in the Western press.
Where a strict adhesion to moralistic values already prevails, be it in provinces, cities, or districts of Indonesia, no couple dares to cohabitate openly. Where religious conformation is an everyday observance, the promotion of safe sex and condoms is already nowhere to be found. Where traditional values rule every mind, abortion is already not an option.
The actual revision would just reflect the conservative turn the country is taking under religious pressure. It has been clearly announced by lawmakers, some of them citing peculiar religious diktats from their faith. So, in the end, the big question mark that remains is: will it be enforced if passed?
As often in Indonesia, there is a gap between law and law enforcement. It’s a cultural thing and cultures are diverse in the archipelago. Unlike in the West, where individual rights matter the most, here, it’s the local collective norm that prevails, whatever the law says. The individual always gives way to the group. In the West, people claim their right to be accepted as different. Here, the difference is accepted only if not openly claimed.
So, if the lawmakers decide that the whole country should follow a bill revised according to their very own beliefs, would this bill be enforced in places where these beliefs are not widely shared? The Vice-Governor of Bali, Tjokorda Oka Artha Ardhana, has already answered the question. It’s no.
“I can guarantee that unmarried couples will face no jail time, as long as there is no complaint from their husband, wife, child, or parents,” he said, trying to reassure Australian media that Bali was still a safe destination for unmarried couples.
In Indonesia, you don’t show off your sexual inclinations in public. Yes, you’re supposed to be married before having sex. No, you don’t go around claiming your right to same-sex relationships, group sex, transgender sex, or whatever your sexual preference is, not like in the West. You don’t walk down the street half-naked like a Gay Pride parade, but it doesn’t mean there is no room for it.
Indonesian students are first and foremost Indonesians. Somehow, because of the change of tide in the 21st century, they might even appear more modest and shyer than their parents were on sexual matters. Puritanism is making a comeback worldwide and Indonesia doesn’t escape the trend.
But in today’s global society, young Indonesians are aware of the issue, just don’t expect them to go all out against the conservative choices of the House of the Representatives, rampaging through the streets of Jakarta while holding provocative banners claiming their right to have sex. This is not the case so far and will never be.
In the end, the revised bill on sex might pass one day, and it might not. It’s at the core of an ongoing chess game where nothing is said clearly because of applicable standards. The discussion goes through lines of argument where a spade is never called a spade. Nobody will ever dare to go all out on sex, let alone in a demonstration.
You just don’t do that in Indonesia, where such ways are completely unthinkable and most of all certainly bound to fail.