Sex outside marriage ban tests Indonesia’s relationship with democracy

When Indonesia’s passed controversial amendments to its criminal code earlier this month, one aspect above all others dominated the headlines: the criminalization of sex outside marriage.

Tourism figures warned it would put foreigners off visiting and hurt Indonesia’s global reputation – no small matters in a country that welcomed up to 15 million international travelers annually before the pandemic and recently held the G20 presidency for the first time in its history.

Officials have since play down the likelihood of tourists being charge, but hundreds of millions of Indonesia’s still face the prospect of up to a year in jail for the same offense – and rights activists warn that this only the start of the new code’s potential to threaten Indonesians’ personal freedoms and civil liberties. Indonesian officials, on the other hand, defend the move as a necessary compromise in a democracy that is home to the world’s largest Muslim population.

The new code also criminalizes cohabitation between unmarried couples and promoting contraception to minors, and enshrines laws against abortion (except in cases of rape and medical emergencies when the fetus is less than 12 weeks) and blasphemy.

Sex outside marriage ban tests Indonesia’s relationship with democracy

It also limits Indonesians’ right to protest and criminalizes insulting the president, members of his cabinet or the state ideology.

Offenders face the prospect of prison terms ranging from months to years.

Rights groups have been scathing in their assessments.

“In one fell swoop, Indonesia’s human rights situation has taken a drastic turn for the worse,” said Andreas Harsono, senior Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“Potentially, millions of people will be subject to criminal prosecution under this deeply flawed law. Its passage is the beginning of an unmitigated disaster for human rights in Indonesia.”

So, how exactly did it come to pass?

The creation of the new code is in part a reflection of the growing influence conservative Islam plays in the politics of what is the world’s third-largest democracy.

About 230 million of the 270 million people who call this vast and diverse archipelago nation home are Muslim, though there are also sizable Christian and Hindu minorities and the country prides itself on a state ideology known as “Pancasila,” which stresses inclusivity.

The constitution guarantees a secular government and freedom of religion, and criminal law is largely based on a secular code inherited from the former Dutch colonial power – though the province of Aceh adopts and implements sharia law – and Islamic principles influence some civil matters and local level by-laws.

However, more conservative forms of Islam that were once repressed under the former dictator Suharto have in recent years emerged as increasingly powerful forces at the ballot box.

In the most recent general election, in 2019,

President Joko Widodo controversially picke an elderly Islamic cleric – Ma’ruf Amin – his running mate in a move that widely seen a move to secure more Muslim votes.

The appointment of Ma’ruf raised eyebrows among Widodo’s more moderate supporters, but it helped see off the challenge from the former military general Prabowo Subianto who had forged an alliance with hardline Islamist groups. Some of those groups had already demonstrated their clout by leading mass protests that led to the toppling of the Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, on a blasphemy charge.

The new criminal code – which updates the code inherited from the Dutch and passed unanimously by lawmakers belonging to multiple parties – also reflects this growing influence of conservative Islam. Some conservative parties had been calling for an even stricter code, but previous proposals sparke mass street protests and shelved after Widodo intervened.

Describing the new code as a “compromise”, Indonesian officials have said it needed to reflect a spread of interests in a multicultural and multi-ethnic country.

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