OPINION: A crackdown against LGBT+ people in Indonesia is underway

by Jonta Saragih and Daina Rudusa | OutRight Action International
Tuesday, 23 February 2021 17:22 GMT

FILE PHOTO: An Indonesian man is publicly caned for having gay sex in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, Indonesia May 23, 2017. REUTERS/Beawiharta

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The rise of Islamic conservatism in Indonesia doesn't just threaten LGBT+ people

Jonta Saragih is Indonesia program officer and Daina Rudusa is senior communications manager at OutRight Action International

Little good news has come from Indonesia in relation to LGBT+ equality. Several regressive laws have been proposed, vigilante violence is rising, and police raids of LGBT+ spaces are common. Just last month a gay couple was publicly caned in Aceh province. 

It has been rightly reported that a crackdown against LGBT+ people in Indonesia is underway. However, what's been missing is the recognition that these attacks form one part of a broader proliferation of purist Islamic conservatism promoted by a number of right-wing parties and organizations. In order to most effectively fight for LGBT+ equality, and human rights more broadly, we have to consider the picture as a whole.

Life for LGBT+ people in Indonesia is undoubtedly bleak. Indonesia does not criminalize same-sex relations on a national level, however Sharia law, which does, is in effect in the province of Aceh, while the vaguely worded national Pornography Act is widely used to target LGBT+ people elsewhere. In 2018 revisions to the country's Penal Code were proposed, including a ban on consensual same-sex relations. In 2020, a “Family Resilience” bill was introduced, defining homosexuality as a deviance that poses a threat to families, and requiring LGBT+ people to report to state rehabilitation centers to be “fixed”. This year, a local version of the bill was proposed in Bogor city, and activists fear that other localities may follow.

But it is also important to recognize that LGBT+ people are not the only group under attack. The proposed ban on same-sex sexual activity in the Penal Code is a subsection of a broader ban on extra-marital sex. Other changes in the proposal would also see access to birth control limited and abortion banned, disproportionately affecting the sexual and reproductive rights of women.

Similarly, the forced “rehabilitation” of LGBT+ people foreseen in the “Family Resilience” bill form one part of a law which seeks to regulate families. It prescribes the role of men as provider and head of the household, and the role of women as carers of the family and home. LGBT+ people are positioned as a threat to this model, and therefore forced “conversion therapy” is prescribed. This bill would see women subjugated to domestic work and servitude to their husbands, and is a blatant attack on gender equality efforts.

The same conservative parties pushing for the above changes have also proposed a ban on alcohol, to further codify a very particular way of life. While a bill tackling gender-based violence proposed by more progressive parliamentarians is being deemed by the Islamic parties as “western agenda”. The purist Islamic parties are a minority in Parliament constituting just under 30% of the seats. However, the number and popularity of the provisions they have proposed shows their growing influence.

There is some good news too. Indonesia’s parliament met at the end of January to determine which pending bills would be considered as a priority in 2021. Neither the Family Resilience Bill nor the Penal Code revisions made it into that list, while the bill tackling gender-based violence did. Both remain active bills, however, with the possibility of being considered in future years.

The rise of the purist conservative right wing not only poses threats to certain groups, they stand in stark contrast to the reality in Indonesia. The official country motto is “unity in diversity”. Indonesia is a country spanning across 17000 islands, with more than 300 ethnic groups, six official religions, and a population of 270 million people. There is no one way of life in a country this big, this populous, and this diverse. The purist, right-wing Islamist powers are essentially trying to hijack the narrative and values of the nation, and impose their interpretation of how things should be. This poses a huge threat not only to LGBT+ people, but to women, to inhabitants belonging to other religions, and even the majority of the Islamic population.

In order to successfully tackle the increasing proliferation of Islamic conservatism in Indonesia, we have to look at the big picture. We have to find that “unity in diversity” and work together across women's, LGBT+, and human rights groups, as well as across state and private sector boundaries, to fight for all of our basic human rights. There are so many opportunities in a country as diverse as this one. We need to seize them.

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