Opinion

Bad start to the year for
women in Indonesia

First there was RI. An 11-year-old from a family of Jakarta scavengers discovered with injuries to her genitals and a sexually transmitted disease. RI’s 55-year-old father, Sunoto, who has the same disease, reportedly confessed to raping her. The girl passed away on Jan. 6 from an inflammation of the brain.

Then there was NWJ, impregnated by a 39-year-old construction worker when she was 13. NWJ and the married father of two wed on Jan. 26 in a Balinese Hindu ceremony witnessed by both parties’ families and officiated by the customary village chief. The 7-months-pregnant teenager went into labor on Feb. 4 and the infant did not survive.

And then there was FO, the 17-year-old who married Garut regent Aceng Fikri in a nikah siri or unregistered Muslim marriage last year. The father of three divorced FO three days after their wedding via text message, claiming she was not a virgin.

Identified only by their initials, RI, NWJ and FO are mere droplets in a vast ocean of similar yet unreported cases.

And what unites them is not religion, nor class, nor locale. It is men. And it is the specter of rape and
sexual coercion.

As an American woman living in Indonesia, these cases are upsetting both because of the local systems of patriarchy that allow them to occur and because of their distressing universality, with all too many women, including recent headline-grabbing gang rape cases in India, South Africa and Ohio in the US, tormented at the hands of men.

It is clear what RI suffered was rape. In NWJ’s case, she reportedly told police she accepted the man’s sexual advances and was in love with him. And FO’s parents consented to her marriage, Aceng giving the
family Rp 250 million (US$26,000) as a dowry.

But NWJ was 13 and FO 17 at the time of their encounters with the two married adult males, and sexual relations with women under the age of 18, according to Article 81(2) of Law No. 23/2002 on child protection, is illegal.

In the US this is termed statutory rape. It is definitely an act of dominance over someone with no power or authority, someone who is legally still a child.

Perhaps Banjarmasin High Court judge Muhammad Daming Sunusi can shed light on the issue. During a hearing for Supreme Court justice candidates at the House of Representatives on Jan. 14, Daming said in response to a question about rapists and capital punishment, “Both the victims of rape and the rapist might have enjoyed their intercourse together, so we should think twice before handing down the death
penalty.”

While Daming has been widely condemned and has apologized, the fact that he expressed such an opinion in public is deeply, deeply troubling, as is the fact that his statement was greeted with laughter by the roomful of legislators at the hearing.

But January’s affronts to women were not over yet. On Jan. 21, in response to a United Nations resolution in December urging member states to ban female genital mutilation (FGM), Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) deputy-secretary-general Amirsyah Tambunan said at a press conference that the Indonesian government should continue to allow what both the MUI and the government term “female circumcision”.

The terminology shift in the country is lamentable. A 2010 Health Ministry regulation condones female circumcision, describing the procedure as “scraping [menggores] the skin that covers the front part of the clitoris, without harming the clitoris”.

The ministry claims on its website that female circumcision is not FGM. According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition, it is.

In fact, practices in the country vary widely and are not restricted to what is described in the ministry’s definition.

The procedure can range from the symbolic, like a tap with a bamboo stick, to scrapes or incisions using a razor blade, to slicing part of the clitoris off with a penknife. A study conducted throughout the country by the Population Council in 2003 found that 28 percent of the 1,307 cases they looked at were symbolic, while 49 percent involved incisions and 22 percent excisions, meaning part of the clitoris or labia was removed.

Huzaemah, a member of the MUI’s fatwa commission, says the practice is a religious obligation that should be done to control women’s sexual desires, as has Lukman Hakim, chair of social services at the Assalaam Foundation, which offers the procedure for free at mass annual events for girls in Bandung. They are not alone in sharing that viewpoint.

The government has made no steps to address the UN resolution or repeal the Health Ministry regulation, which stipulates female circumcision be performed by licensed doctors, nurses or midwives. The WHO firmly opposes institutionalizing or medicalizing the procedure, which is exactly what the ministry’s regulation does.

Yet a physician from the Indonesian General Practitioners Association says medical schools do not train doctors in the practice, and the Population Council study found that when midwives were at the helm, 57 percent of the procedures involved excision, their preferred instrument — scissors.

So what can we learn from this dire news of rape, teenage pregnancy and genital mutilation?

RI, NWJ, FO and other victims of rape and sexual coercion throughout the world — and the women and girls whose genitals have been incised or excised in the name of suppressing their sexuality — have all been oppressed and controlled by men. Yet, their stories suggest it is rather the men involved who need to be
controlled and contained.

It is men who cannot stop themselves from acting on their sexual desires. And it is men who simultaneously strive to control those same desires in women, in the case of FGM, quite literally.

They somehow want it both ways, and they should not continue to be allowed to have it.

The writer has a Master’s degree in religion from Columbia University in the US.

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