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While in other countries, women are bringing down the powerful men who assaulted and harassed them, in Indonesia assault victims are still struggling to find justice.

#MeToo has skipped Indonesia — here’s why

I won’t give up, I’ll keep my fire up.”

That’s what rape survivor Agni said last year after administrators at Indonesia’s Gadjah Mada University, one of Indonesia’s top schools, ignored her report that she had been sexually assaulted by a friend during a residential community service program in a remote area of the archipelagic country.

According to Agni (not her real name), the university seemed more interested in protecting its good image than in pursuing justice.

But after the student newspaper, Balairung, exposed Agni’s plight, the campus rape case became national news. A hashtag went viral on social media: #SaveAgni.

Many Indonesians hoped that this controversy would kickstart their #MeToo moment. Starting in the United States, the movement to expose and punish sexual assault has spread internationally over the last 18 months, but it has not yet reached the world’s largest Muslim population.

Indonesia’s weak #MeToo movement

Agni’s case is one of many unresolved sexual violence cases in Indonesia exposed during the #MeToo era.

While women in other countries are bringing down the powerful men who assaulted and harassed them, in Indonesia assault victims are still struggling to find justice.

Indonesian feminist Tunggal Pawestri coined #SayaJuga – a direct translation of #MeToo – to encourage more public discussion of sexual assault. Still, in Indonesia, #MeToo remains limited to the social media savvy and middle-upper class women.

The latest Indonesian National Women’s Life Experience Survey shows that one in three Indonesian women has suffered physical and/or sexual violence, which is similar to the global average, according to the World Health Organization and the World Bank.

I study gender issues in Indonesia, where I was once a researcher for the National Commission on Violence against Women.

In my assessment, a combination of a deep-rooted patriarchal culture, conservative religious values and gender-insensitive law enforcement practices are to blame why #MeToo is not happening in Indonesia.

Patriarchal culture

One shared feature of countries that have developed their own powerful #MeToo movement – such as China, South Korea, and India – is the strong support of the government, legal system and public to take action against sexual violence.

In Indonesia, these institutions have the opposite effect.

The country’s strong patriarchal culture – reinforced by the government and religious leaders – has prevented women from speaking up about sex, let alone sexual violence.

Under the 32-year authoritarian rule of New Order regime, which ended in 1998, women were barred from entering politics. Their roles were mainly limited to being mothers and wives.

Hence, discussions of women’s issues have for decades revolved around domestic duties. Gender equality and protection from sexual violence simply weren’t part of Indonesia’s public debate.

Any effort to create more gender-balanced policies gets a powerful pushback from Indonesia’s conservative Muslim leaders, who believe women should be pious, obedient, and able to uphold their morality. That includes wearing modest fashion and a veil to avoid arousing men.

Of course, women in hijab also experience sexual assault. Rape is about power, not attraction.

Still, in Indonesia this conservative Muslim narrative has helped perpetuate rape culture, a culture in which sexual violence is pervasive, normalised, and excused. A 2014 study shows that Indonesian men assume violence against women rarely happen. And if it does happen, they say, she deserved it.

The media advances Indonesia’s victim-blaming culture, too. Stories about sexual harassment often portray women as responsible for stoking male desire.

Bad regulations and poor law enforcement

This strong patriarchal culture has contributed to legal protections so weak that women may even be criminalised for reporting rape.

That’s what happened to Baiq Nuril, a teacher in Lombok, in the West Nusa Tenggara province of Indonesia. Last year, she reported her boss for harassment and she was jailed for defamation under Indonesia’s controversial Electronic and Information System Law.

Activists are fighting for the approval of a comprehensive anti-sexual violence bill currently undergoing legislative debate. If passed, the law would broaden the definition of sexual violence to include rape, sexual harassment, and harmful customary practices like female genital mutilation.

The bill would also require that schools teach their students about sexual violence, ensure that women receive mental health assistance after experiencing sexual trauma, and provide safe facilities for women in public places.

The legalisation of the anti-sexual violence bill could be a light in the Indonesian darkness, protecting Agni and other victims. But conservative Islamic groups have challenged the bill, arguing that it promotes free sex and deviant sexual behaviour.

Indonesian women may also feel discouraged from reporting rape to law enforcement.

Although Indonesian police protocols encourage officers to gain victims’ trust – including by assigning more female police officers and psychologists to sexual violence cases – these guidelines have not eliminated a strong victim-blaming culture in law enforcement.

Police often interrogate victims, asking victims to provide eyewitnesses to their sexual assault and share extremely detailed accounts of their rape.

In November 2017, Indonesia’s National Police Chief, Gen. Tito Karnavian, said investigators should ask a woman who reports sexual violence whether “she was comfortable during the rape.”

The shocking statement left victims feeling hopeless. If Indonesia’s police chief, the embodiment of legal protection, thinks rape can be gentle – that a woman can be “comfortable” – how can survivors ever believe that the police are on their side?

What’s next?

The global #MeToo movement has roused more people worldwide to speak up about sexual assault and raised public sympathy – just not in Indonesia.

Most Indonesian women are silent, or silenced, within a deeply entrenched patriarchal culture intertwined with and reinforced by religious conservatism. This puts the one in three women who’ve experience sexual violence here in an extremely difficult position, in an environment permeated by victim-blaming.

Many women, bound within a system that prevents them from fighting back or speaking up, pass these attitudes on to younger generations.

Despite these systematic problems, one Indonesian sexual assault victim refuses to give up. Agni has promised to continue her fight for justice at Gadjah Mada University.

Hopefully, there will be a time when other Indonesians can speak #MeToo out loud, without fear or doubt.

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