How can Indonesia deal with marital rape when so many refuse to acknowledge it exists?

Illustration by Jane Paireepinart/Coconuts Media
Illustration by Jane Paireepinart/Coconuts Media

In July, there were three widely reported cases of domestic violence in Indonesia. The incidents, each involving husbands and wives, were so shockingly brutal that they sparked a national discussion about an often taboo topic: marital rape, a crime many traditionalists deny exists.

The very concept of marital rape is routinely scoffed at in the Muslim majority nation. Reactions to the first of the gruesome cases, in which a man slit his wife’s throat — in front of their young child — for refusing to have sex with him highlighted just how alien the concept of consent in marriage is to many Indonesians.

The online response to a subsequent statement condemning marital rape by the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) only underscored how ugly some of the attitudes really are.

If a wife refuses her husband’s advances (to have sex) while she’s not on her period, that’s the real sin, condemned by the angels. Even if the wife wants to take part in a sunnah (optional) fast, she must ask for her husband’s permission.

Do you understand, you dumb whores?

Well, here we go again!

It’s worth noting that the second tweet was posted by a controversial cleric named Tengku Zulkarnain, who, earlier this year, infamously rejected the idea of marital rape in a live discussion on TV about a bill to strengthen legal protections for women against gender-based violence, saying, “If desire wants, then it (sex) must happen. The wife can just lie down or sleep, it doesn’t hurt.”

A snapshot of Indonesia’s marital rape problem

In their annual report on violence against women in Indonesia, the latest of which covered 2017, Komnas Perempuan found just 172 reported cases of marital rape.

That number represents a small portion of the total 2,979 reported cases of sexual violence in Indonesia — itself a number so small as to suggest widespread underreporting. But even within that context, marital rape numbers are almost certainly depressed by the prevailing belief that husbands have ownership over their wives’ bodies.

“The way they see it, wives must serve the sexual desires of their husbands whether they want to or not, so if wives are forced, they cannot refuse. It means that wives are merely seen as sex slaves,” Komnas Perempuan Commissioner Mariana Amiruddin told Coconuts.

Mariana was quick to add that Indonesian law does not adequately protect women from marital rape.

“Indonesia’s Law on Marriage does not recognize the rape of a wife. Yet Komnas Perempuan has received many reports from partner institutions and the police,” she said. “The fact is, marital rape is real and wives can experience mental and physical harm.”

While marital rape is not illegal under Indonesia’s Criminal Code, it is criminalized by the Domestic Violence Protection Act. However, those cases carry a higher burden of proof and a lower maximum punishment — 12 years — than rape outside marriage. 

For years, women’s rights activists have been pushing the government to pass the Elimination of Sexual Violence Bill (RUU-PKS), which would enforce harsher punishments for perpetrators of gender-based violence and provide greater protections for victims of crimes such as marital rape. However, conservative activists and politicians have consistently fought to block the bill — first introduced in 2016 — by framing it as permissive towards sex outside of marriage and supportive of LGBTQ rights.

In the offices of Komnas Perempuan, Mariana said, there is little optimism it will pass anytime soon.

The Islamic perspective

K.H. Husein Muhammad, a respected Islamic scholar and founder of the Fahmina Institute, which focuses on religious studies and community empowerment, says it is deeply embedded patriarchal values, rather than Islam, that are to blame for much of Indonesia’s disconnect on the issue.

Those patriarchal values, however, are often backed by narrow interpretations of religious texts, cherry-picked by those attempting to deny the existence of marital rape.

“In Islam, any kind of violence, against anyone, is prohibited. It’s prohibited to be violent against friends, other people, let alone your wife,” he told Coconuts.

That said, Husein said he recognizes that many Muslim men justify using their wives as sexual objects based on religious teachings. For example, he referred to a hadith (reports of statements or actions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), which says that women who disappoint their husbands by refusing to have sexual relations will be condemned by the angels until the next morning.

“But to me, that’s not the right way to understand it. That is in conflict with the purpose of marriage, which is to share love and sexual relations, among others. Sex must bring happiness to both,” Husein said.

The scholar went on to stress the emphasis the Quran places on the mutual love and happiness between a husband and a wife, such as in this verse:

And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquillity in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy. Indeed in that are signs for a people who give thought. the Holy Quran, 30:21

What is playing out in Indonesia now, Husein says, is simply a snapshot of an age-old struggle faced by women around the world and of many different faiths.

“Patriarchy is embedded in cultures and is the belief of many people. It’s where everything in life is regulated by men. All that’s good is determined by men. It’s a centuries-long struggle; we’ve been selling patriarchal values for 30 centuries, not just in Islam, but around the world and across cultures,” he said.

“Lately there has been a lot of progress for women. Women can become members of parliament, leaders, presidents. But can women be the head of a household? That’s still difficult.”

A difficult road ahead

It’s precisely those entrenched patriarchal values that are holding Indonesia back, argues Dr. Dina Afrianty, not only from recognizing the problem of marital rape but from achieving gender equality more broadly. 

A research fellow at Australia’s La Trobe Law School and author of Women and Sharia Law in Northern Indonesia: Local Women’s NGOS and the reform of Islamic law in Aceh, Afrianty believes changing the status quo will remain difficult as long as conservative voices drown out those calling for gender-based progress in Indonesia.

“My research into domestic violence indicates that certain religious and cultural values are frequently a barrier to law enforcement that is favorable and protective of women’s interests. The current debate around marital rape fits into the same pattern where law seeks to accelerate social change,” she told Coconuts.

“The more obviously conservative voices seem to have the capacity to influence attitudes and behavior generally. Indonesians continue to express support for religious values as a basis for life and government policy,” Afrianty said. “In addition, there is an anti-Western flavor to opposition to gender-friendly developments. This approach not only appeals to religious conservatives, but can also appeal to a broader constituency.”

“In Islam, any kind of violence, against anyone, is prohibited. It’s prohibited to be violent against friends, other people, let alone your wife.”

That said, positive change is possible — perhaps even inevitable — she believes, it’s just a question of how many victories we as a nation can score amid the all-too-frequent setbacks.

“It is encouraging that a legal challenge to child marriage was successful on a second attempt, in recent years. This shows that there is hope for change and that institutions are capable of playing a positive role,” Afrianty said, referring to a case last year in which the government intervened to annul a marriage between two teenagers in South Kalimantan amid increasing reports of child marriages being given both religious and legal sanction in recent years.

While legal reforms, such as the passing of RUU-PKS, would represent a significant step towards a more gender-equal society, eradicating marital rape ultimately rests on our ability to create empathy — and equality — among genders.

And while that empathy seems wholly lacking in some quarters, Komnas Perempuan’s Amiruddin said that can often be a matter of education and basic awareness.

During talks with co-ed groups, she told us, it’s routinely the men who wince the most when confronted by the at-times horrific anecdotes she shares. Asking men to confront those stories, she believes, is a key to chipping away at marital rape’s normalization, something that undermines our most fundamental notions about the sanctity of marriage and equality.

“If people knew about the cases, they, too, would be angered by marital rape,” she said. “Except for those who aren’t sane.”

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