Consent vs. ‘nikah’: Indonesia’s culture war won’t end anytime soon – Universities

Ary Hermanwan (The Jakarta Post)

Jakarta ●
Thu 18 November 2021

house-of-representatives, sexual violence, Nadiem-Makarim, regulation, campus, Muhammadiyah, Nahdlatul-ulama, MUI, marriage

Midway through his tenure as national education official, Gojek co-founder and Harvard alumnus Nadiem Makarim found himself caught in an ideological battle over sexual ethics.

Nadiem, the only millennial and arguably most “woke” minister in President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s Indonesia Onward cabinet, recently sparked a moral panic among conservative Indonesians who fear the cosmopolitan, US-educated minister will promotes promiscuity in universities around the world. the country.

The trigger for this moral panic was a ministerial regulation that Nadiem enacted to address sexual violence on campuses through provisions that he said would provide a clear mechanism for resolving allegations of sexual assault in academia.

The regulations have been criticized by Muslim groups who have challenged the phrase “without consent” as a key part of the definition of sexual assault. Their argument is that it is a foreign and liberal concept and is used by the state to “legalize” extramarital sex, at least implicitly, as long as it is consensual.

Nadiem defended the settlement, pointing out that its purpose was to eradicate sexual assault on campus, which he blasted as one of the “great sins” of the education system, and that he neither justified nor endorsed the consensual extramarital sex between students.

But his argument fell on deaf ears with conservatives, who chose to turn politics into yet another ideological battle in the long-running culture war against (bad) sexual behavior in post-authoritarian Indonesia, especially in contexts of sexual ethics, sex education and women’s sexual rights.

Post-Soeharto moral policy

It is important to consider the controversy over the regulation of sexual assault on campus as part of this ongoing culture war. It’s a war that dates back to the nation’s formative years when the founding fathers discussed national identity, particularly the role of Islam as a quasi-state religion.

Ideological competition has long informed our politics, embodied conceptually in Sukarno’s ‘Nasakom’ (nationalism, religion and communism) and Soeharto’s ‘Pancasila democracy’.

The only difference is that, perhaps due to years of depoliticization of Islam under Suharto, the current culture war seems to be overly focused on issues of gender and sexuality. That said, it is no less political. It is always a question of power, insofar as any moral panic is often linked to, if not motivated by, realpolitik.

It is no coincidence that opponents of the ministerial settlement include opposition groups like the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) as well as opposition niches within Muhammadiyah and the Indonesian Ulema Council.

The politics of morality is the norm in post-Soeharto Indonesia, beginning with the controversy over damn it singer Inul Daratista’s spinning dance move known as “drilling”. This was followed by street protests against the Indonesian edition of Playboy and the magazine’s editor’s lawsuit, the Pornography Act 2008 and the failed petition to the Constitutional Court to amend the Penal Code by adding Zine (extramarital sex) and homosexuality as criminal offences.

Just months ago, Nadiem faced harsh criticism from conservative educationists for banning denominational dress codes in public schools, a policy he imposed following reports that several non-Muslim students from West Sumatra had been forced to wear the hijab. School uniforms have suddenly become a contested space for competing ideological currents to determine the limits of religious (in)tolerance and (un)freedom in the country.

In fact, the latest controversy over the ministerial regulation on sexual assault on campuses is only a sideshow. The main spectacle, the battle over the minds and souls of the country, takes place in the House of Representatives, where lawmakers are (still) debating the sexual violence bill.

The bill will have to resolve the key debate about sexual assault and women’s sexuality: what is more important, consent or nikah (marriage)? This can be interpreted as individual choice versus social permission regarding any form of sexual activity, regardless of consent.

Consent versus ‘nikah’

It is not easy to pigeonhole Indonesians in terms of ideology or politics. Some liberal Indonesians see themselves as Muslims first, and even the most puritanical and conservative Indonesian Muslim could never represent Indonesia’s moderate Islam, which is far from monolithic. In other words, this culture war is being fought not only between liberal Indonesians and their conservative counterparts, but also between progressive and backward elements within the Muslim community.

The point of contention, however, is anything but ambiguous.

It is impossible for either of the two opposing sides of this culture war to convince the other of their respective positions, as they simply use different sets of values ​​to determine what constitutes rape or sexual assault. It is safe to say that they are engaging in nothing less than an ideological tussle.

Indonesia has long been deeply divided over the age-old question of who exactly controls women’s bodies: women, their husbands, relatives, or the state? For some Indonesians, the answer couldn’t be more obvious: women are in control of their own bodies. To think otherwise would be an aberration. But for more conservative Indonesians, the very idea of ​​women deciding when and with whom they can have sex is nothing more than an affront to their religious and cultural sensibilities.

The former believes that what matters is individual consent, while the latter asserts that social permission in the form of marriage is the last line. This has led to unreconciled arguments between the two sides over whether consensual extramarital sex is moral or immoral, and whether there is such a thing as marital rape.

While the country still grapples with rampant corruption and socio-economic inequalities resulting from the deeply entrenched oligarchic system, it is likely that this ideological tussle will continue to shape our society and our politics for years to come.

Role of progressive Muslims

It is difficult to predict the end of this global culture war. Crucially, however, it is being fought on many fronts: at the state level and within civil society, as well as at the level of legislative and judicial institutions. Moreover, it is a battle fought not only between liberals and conservatives, but also between progressive and backward elements within the Muslim community, including Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama.

It goes without saying that progressive Indonesians who believe that women should have authority over their own bodies and that all types of sexual violence should be abolished, whether it takes place within or outside of marriage, should work together to defend these values.

But as the largest democracy in the Islamic world, it is even more crucial that progressive Muslims – Muslims who believe that the universal message of Islam is compatible with universal human rights – speak out in this ideological battle that puts women’s rights are often at stake. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of Indonesia as a country that respects the rights of every individual, regardless of religion, gender or race, rests in their hands.


The author is editor-in-chief at Jakarta Post and PhD candidate at the Asia Institute of the University of Melbourne.

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