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The UGM rape case is a reminder that our priority should be to stand with the survivors of sexual assault.

Victim-blaming culture holds back #MeToo in Indonesia

The Conversation Indonesia is publishing a series of articles on violence against women in conjunction with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25.

Women in Indonesia are joining the #MeToo movement, with victims of sexual assault reporting their abusers to authorities. Recently, two cases have captured public attention. One was an alleged rape of a student of Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in Yogyakarta by a peer. The other involved unwanted sexual advances over the phone by a school principal to one of his teachers in Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara.

In the US, victims’ testimonies have brought down powerful men and introduced new corporate norms rejecting sexual assault. But in Indonesia the women’s testimonies have criminalised them as victim blaming is still pervasive.

The media play a role in both exposing and reinforcing such culture.

Blaming the victim

The UGM rape case went public after UGM’s student press, Balairung, published a report. Balairung reported that Agni (not her real name) was sexually assaulted by a fellow student identified as HS during a community service program for college credit at a village on Seram Island in the Moluccas.

They interviewed Agni and reported in detail on the university’s response to her report. Following her report of rape, her alleged abuser was taken out of the program, while she continued. However, she was given a low mark. The campus representatives blamed her for being “reckless”, hence contributing to the incident, as well as embarrassing UGM in front of local villagers.

Balairung quoted one of the female supervisors saying: “If you didn’t sleep in the same room as him, this would have never happened.” A male official suggested we should not be in a rush to call Agni a “victim”, saying:

Like a cat given salted fish, it will at least sniff it and might even eat the fish.

Meanwhile, in Lombok, Baiq Nuril, a teacher who recorded a phone conversation between her and the headteacher, as evidence of unwanted sexual advances, has been sentenced to six months in jail and a fine of Rp500 million. She was found guilty of recording and spreading indecent material under Indonesia’s electronic information and transactions law.

This case is just the tip of the iceberg on the prevalence of victim-blaming culture in our society.

The culture is so rampant that many rape survivors are afraid to report the case because of the risk that they could be criminalised for reporting their abuse.

The role of media

Victim blaming is an attitude of putting the blame on women for the abuse they experience. It also takes the side of the perpetrators and accepts their side of stories.

By engaging in victim-blaming attitudes, society accuses women of being somehow responsible for sexual abuse. Such an attitude also tolerates the assaults and allows the abusers to escape punishment.

The pervasiveness of victim blaming in Indonesia is strongly influenced by a patriarchal culture, based on an ideology of hierarchical relations between women and men. Under patriarchy the position of men is more dominant and more influential. Women are subordinates. As a result, men demand respect and obedience from women to a certain extent.

News media play a role in combating victim-blaming culture. Media are the primary source to inform how society understands violence against women and girls. Media in this case help victims to be heard. The Balairung‘s exposé of the UGM rape case, for instance, helps draw public attention to it.

However, media coverage can also reinforce victim-blaming attitudes due to the media tendency to represent women as victims, instead of survivors, and associate them with their lack of power. Media also tend to blame women in reports on sexual abuse.

Research on sexual attacks against Chinese descendants during the Indonesian political transition in May 1998, by Susan Blackburn from Monash University, Australia, highlighted the Indonesian media’s role in spreading the victim-blaming practice. She found that media often framed that rapes occurred because women provoked uncontrollable male sexual urges with their “provocative” and “sensual” clothing. In other words, the media said it was women who were inviting rape.

The victim-blaming attitudes in patriarchal society have made the survivors of sexual violence suffer from double victimisation: being raped and being blamed. This results in them not feeling safe in sharing their stories with others.

Victim blaming can also have another negative consequence.

A study by Indonesian sociologist Ariel Heryanto of Chinese female descendants who were raped and sexually abused in 1998 found that many of them chose to run away from home and attempt to lead a new life in a distant place due to trauma and fear of stigmatisation. Many others try to overcome the trauma by forgetting the violence, or denying that the sexual violence occurred. As a result, it is still difficult to obtain facts and justice related to the 1998 rape cases.

The patriarchal environment also reinforces the rape culture that perpetuates victim-blaming attitudes. Rape culture is defined as an environment that tolerates rape and sexual violence.

This culture is preserved through the use of sexist language, the objectification of women’s bodies, body shaming of women and the use of sexually explicit jokes. It creates a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.

Defending survivors

The UGM rape case is a reminder to us that, in every case of rape, our priority should be to stand with the survivors. Public support for Baiq Nuril from Lombok should also trigger reform in law enforcement and the judiciary to protect victims of sexual abuse.

Given that the victim blaming and rape culture are a persistent problem in our society, we should consistently fight against any kind of violence against women and girls. We must stand by the survivors every time, and not only when their cases generate a public outcry. We can start by respecting any kind of clothing they wear.

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