Indonesia goes over the edge

I don’t usually mind being wrong. Really I don’t. But today it hurts. Indonesia has passed a bill that makes it illegal to bathe in rivers or wiggle your hips while dancing. The news reached me at exactly the time I was on air on one of the country highest rated TV shows, talking about anal sex.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been saying with some confidence that there was no way that Indonesia’s parliament would actually pass the anti pornography bill which has been 10 years in the making. The spirit of pluralism is of necessity deeply rooted in Indonesia; with so may religions, languages, ethnicities, people have to tolerate one another just to survive. Of course political inertia is almost as deeply rooted as pluralism, so it sometimes takes people a while to wake up to the fact that a few noisy zealots are whipping them towards the brink. But once at the brink, once faced with the possibility that all-important pluralism will actually be undermined, they would rise up, speak out, push the zealots back into their lairs, I reasoned.

I was wrong.

There was indeed a little bit of rising up, most notably on the Hindu island of Bali, and in largely Christian North Sulawesi. And in the national parliament, 100 MPs rose up and walked out in protest before the bill was voted on. But none of this was enough to stop the bill being passed. I’m hoping that the law will be ignored, like so many others in Indonesia (laws against corruption, laws protecting the rights of factory workers and citizens in police custody, laws guaranteeing access to free primary education…). But its broad definition of “pornography” (basically as anything sexual, rather than anything related to sexual exploitation) is dangerous. The fact that it explicitly allows citizens (read: self-appointed vigilante groups) to take this fuzzy law into their own hands to defend the morals of the nation is more than dangerous, it is stupid.

But Indonesia has always been a country of contrast and compromise. Two other things happened at time the law was being passed that cheer me somewhat. The first is that Habib Rizieq Shihab, the leader of the obnoxious FPI or Islamic Defenders’ Front, the best known of the said self-appointed vigilante groups, was thrown in jail for inciting violence at a religious tolerance rally in June. The second, less significant but rather amusing in the circumstances, was that Kick Andy, Indonesia’s answer to Oprah, aired a whole hour and a half programme about sex, drugs and AIDS. In it, my friend Lenny talked about transgender sex work, Bhim demystified gay life in Jakarta in a no-big-deal kind of way, and I talked about anal sex and gave condoms to students on air. An HIV-infected sex worker described what her husband thought of her work and an extremely eminent doctor tore a strip off the government for allowing stocks of antiretrovirals to get run down to zero, despite sucking in millions of dollars from donors.

There may be no room for pluralism in the law, but it is still there in fact.

Elisabeth Pisani

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