As a solo female traveler, I have always experienced a lot of unnecessary male attention in various countries. Sadly enough to say, I got used to notorious catcalling in New York City streets, and I am no stranger to an overly-expressive attitude towards gringas in Rio de Janeiro. When I decided to relocate temporarily to Bali, Indonesia, the only thing I’d heard about this place was that the Balinese believe in karma, so they try their best to be kind, сomplaisant and understanding to people. To be honest with you, it turned out to be the truth, however, mixed with hidden sexual tensions and a protruding rape culture.
Here women’s high morals are determined by the length of the skirt and visibility of the skin. You can’t see it for the first time, unless you experience it like me. One late night I wanted to get home, so I ordered a local motorbike taxi called Gojek. As I got on the motorbike, my driver immediately started driving at the speed of a flash. There was a pivotal moment when he might have considered the length of my dress as a green light, so he moved to grope my knee and then my thigh while we were in a vehicle. I was deeply outraged and scared because I have never experienced such a situation in my life before, hence, I had no clue how to react.
I couldn’t simply demand him to stop in the middle of nowhere at night, so I decided to give a dramatic class act on “how dare you to treat a woman like this” after he drove me to my destination. As I looked at my sexual abuser, I saw the face of a 13 year-old boy who was so ashamed he couldn’t look me in the eyes. That moment, I realized there is something ultimately wrong and woeful about men’s behavior toward women in Indonesia.
Indonesian media plays the Devil’s Advocate
As I dived into the history of sexual violence in Indonesia, it made my hair stand on end. Who would have known that the number of sexual harassment cases in the country had almost doubled from 259,150 reports in 2016 to 406,178 in 2018 according to the National Commission for Eradication of Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan)?
Different stories of sexual violence in Indonesia started appearing on media after the horrific gang rape and murder that happened to a 14-year-old schoolgirl named Yuyun. No one would have globally talked about it without female activists from Jakarta drawing national media attention to this tragic loss. Such cases have become so unrestrained across the country, and most of the time rape survivors are scared of reporting the crime because they are victim-blamed by society or criminalized by authorities.
Media plays a huge role in fighting sexual violence and helping survivors to be heard. Nevertheless, the majority of news media that could shed a light on the prevalence of rape culture contrarily strengthen victim-blaming attitudes in the country. As flawed as it is, in most instances the media tends to represent women as victims, not survivors, thereby disempowering the image of a woman in Indonesian culture. Additional victim-blaming takes its roots in the patriarchal culture of Indonesia where women are expected to be subordinate and dependent on men. Hence, the patriarchy engages rampant influence and domination that more often transforms into power abuse and sexual assault.
The issue of sexual violence in a legal framework
Without inductive reasoning, you can see how disadvantageous the Indonesian woman’s position in society is. Legislative history has had a long and thorny way of fighting for women’s safety in this country. The issue of sexual violence in a legal framework has been raised particularly after the May 1998 riots of Indonesia. Although, only in 2017 did the first official hearings on the Sexual Violence Bill (RUU PKS) induce members of the House of Representatives to agree on some articles of the bill that would spark a social disagreement on the definition of sexual violence and the nine forms of sexual assaults that include sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, forced contraception, forced abortion, rape/marital rape, forced marriage, forced prostitution, sexual slavery and sexual exploitation.
“Unless the new bill that we suggested to be adopted is issued, the position of women is very weak. It’s easier to deal with a case that occurred against a child up to 15 years old. After this age, I think society still has a misogynistic perception of women’s sexuality. Hence, when the sex activity occurs over a period of time, people start to question the morality of a victim rather than investigating power abuse and imbalance of power relations between a perpetrator and a sufferer. That’s why it is much harder to get prosecution in cases of sexual violence towards young or adult women. This is a perfect example of not only gender but also age biases that are prospering in Indonesia,” says Commissioner of the National Commission on Violence Against Women in 2010-2014, Andy Yentriyani.
Sadly enough, the highly-anticipated sexual violence bill has been excluded from 2020s National Legislation Program (Prolegnas) priority list, due to the “difficulties” in arranging the bill’s deliberation. Taking into account that representatives of the National Commission on Violence Against Women have been relentlessly putting efforts towards actualizing this bill since 2017 despite the blockage of conservative Indonesian parties, the abeyance of the House of Representatives on this matter reminds more of a latent statement.
If we look at other examples of jeopardizing lawmaking, we can’t touch the surface of Anti-Pornography Law. The controversial and vague nature of it has raised way more questions than approvals by Indonesian society. Instead of protecting citizens from becoming victims of sexual exploitation, it inequitably “disadvantages women since women are generally the objects of pornography,” says Anindya Restuviani, coordinator of the Feminist Fest Jakarta and a member of activist group Hollaback Jakarta.
“I have seen many cases where women who are in abusive relationships are afraid to report their case because they fear that their partner may leak their intimate video and they will be charged under the porn laws,” adds Restuviani.
“The initiation of the law has predominantly two major points: you have a camp who demand to protect human rights from sexual exploitation and forced engagement in pornography. Also, you have another camp that actually pursues the agenda of criminalizing society for moral reasons. Since women are the bearer of morality symbols, then It will have a specific harsh impact on a female part of society,” states Andy Yentriyani.
Hence, Indonesian women, again, are prone to be victims of jeopardizing the Anti-Pornography Law, which structure is not thoroughly developed to protect them from premeditated and ill-intentioned actions.
A gap of understanding in society
The low understanding of the pervasiveness of sexual violence in Indonesia endangers women’s accessibility to be legally protected in lawmaking. Here we see the dissonance in established laws which visibly possess flaws directly affecting women’s rights.
“When my team and I initiated sex studies back in 2010, we identified 15 types of sexual violence committed against women, which for some reason can’t all be formalized even nowadays. Although, lawmakers took only 9 out of 15 types to be considered in the anti-sexual violence bill. For me it also shows how big is the gap of understanding what constitutes sexual violence among legislators the law enforces as well as society,” claims Andy Yentriyani.
As complicated and culturally intertwined this socially legislative issue might look, the lack of willingness to expand the boundaries of perception regarding sexual harassment, women’s inequality and rampant influence of patriarchy leads to a perpetual number of rape cases being silenced and normalized among society till this day. Meanwhile, sexual abuse toward women is considered a regular part of everyday life and mostly seen as a sign of power and masculinity, and Indonesian women can’t have the anti-sexual violence bill passed by the House of Representatives because it’s implementation seems to be “difficult” for the majority of its members.
This article was contributed by Kira Lviv, a journalist and writer living in Bali, Indonesia.
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