Kartini’s Dream Remains Elusive in Indonesia

By : Johannes Nugroho | on 7:02 PM April 20, 2014
Category : Opinion, Commentary

viewpoint21aprilfor web (JG Graphics/Josep Tri Ronggo Laksono)

This year’s Kartini Day, a commemoration of Indonesia’s feminist icon, occurs amid controversy surrounding the rape of a 6-year-old boy by janitors in an international school in Jakarta. Public outrage is understandably prodigious. Yet, by contrast, rapes against women in Indonesia are often taken for granted. When a few police officers in Gorontalo, Sulawesi, were reported to have gang raped a teenage girl late last year, the news certainly failed to rouse public indignation to a fever point, so much so that it simply petered out of the media in due course.

Granted that rapes against women are more common than children, are they less important? The National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) reported in 2010 that they had recorded 400,939 cases of sexual violence against women since 1998, 1,561 perpetrated by state officials, members of law-enforcing bodies and the military. The enormous figure would probably be even more staggering if the unreported cases were to be taken into account.

A UN survey covering the Asia and Pacific region revealed last year that nearly 25 percent of Indonesian men admit to having non-consensual sex with their partners, without realizing that such an act is considered rape.

The statistics may justly categorize Indonesia as a rape culture. One of the characteristics of rape culture is the acceptance of sexual violence as a normal occurrence, typified by the cavalier way most Indonesians treat news of rape against their fellow Indonesians.

Another is victim-blaming. When a woman was sexually assaulted on the Jakarta busway while unconscious, many Indonesians on the social media commented the girl had dressed “immodestly” by wearing a miniskirt, suggesting that it was no wonder that she had been singled out for sexual violence.

The comments are reminiscent of another verbal outrage committed by former Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo when he reasoned that the prevalence of rapes on the public transport system is due to women wearing short skirts. This, he argued, naturally provoked men sexually.

In order to trivialize rape, a culture may also relegate it to the realm of jokes, and when it comes to rape jokes, Indonesia is definitely not lacking, even in the highest places. Early last year, Supreme Court judge candidate Daming Sunusi provoked raucous laughter in the House of Representatives when he made a distasteful gaffe on rape. When questioned whether he thought the death sentence to be a just punishment for rape, he jovially replied, “I’m doubtful whether capital punishment is called for here as both the rapist and the raped enjoy the experience.”

The statement itself is unworthy of any judge, let alone one aspiring for the Supreme Court. And the fact it elicited laughter rather than umbrage from the mostly male audience of Indonesian lawmakers is disconcerting, to say the least.

The utter lack of sympathy and pernicious victim-blaming is also to be found in the person of Muhammad Nuh, the incumbent minister of education. Commenting on the rape of a schoolgirl in Depok, Nuh informed the press that the aforementioned girl was known to be “a naughty girl,” and that the rape claim may have been false. “They could’ve done it consensually but then she later claimed to have been raped,” he said. He later apologized for making the insensitive remark, but had effectively slut-shamed the victim by questioning her integrity.

Slut-shaming is very much a prevalent practice to downplay rape. The sex scandal involving poet and literary giant Sitok Srengenge late last year is a notable example. A university student reported him to the police for performing non-consensual acts on her over a period of almost a year.

Owing to his social standing and the overdue report, the public was torn into two camps, with most doubting how anyone could have been forced into sex for so many times. People failed to consider that Sitok had a mentor-student relationship with the victim, which would have weighed heavily against her if the mentor had chosen to manipulate it to entail sex.

In 2007-12, reported cases of violence against women went up by 40 percent nationally. This alarming trend should be a reminder that a woman-friendly society remains as elusive as ever for most Indonesian women. The continuing violence against them, and the half-hearted justice we give them when they are assaulted and abused, have only one result: the “modern girl” who is “proud, independent” and “happy,” longed for by Kartini more than a century ago, is still a dream in the making.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer and businessman from Surabaya. Contact him at johannes@nonacris.com.

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