Indonesia and ‘transparent sex’

Conservative attacks on homosexuality and LGBT in Indonesia have branched out into a broader assault on feminism and the intrusion of the state into previously private spheres of life, Hendri Yulius writes.

In the last year there have been consistent legal efforts to outlaw same-sex practices and LGBT identity in Indonesia. And while religious vigilante groups may be responsible for attacks and raids against queer-related events, it is an Islamic pro-family group, the Family Love Alliance (Aliansi Cinta Keluarga/AILA) that is the spearhead of the current attempt to criminalise homosexuality.

Most of the AILA’s members are women who position themselves as ‘mothers’, and say their immediate concerns about protecting the moral fibre of young generations. In doing so, they appeal to public and conservative public officials and successfully gain support from other conservative groups. Another interesting aspect of the group is their clear anti-feminist stance – something that is worth examining to understand the current landscape of gender and sexuality in post-reformation Indonesia.

On their websites and in a series of tweets, the group argued that lifestyles and thoughts influenced by feminism have caused prostitution among young girls and normalised LGBT and/or homosexuality. The group cited the famous feminist slogan ‘My Body My Rights’ as one of the culprits of youth moral degradation.

Further, as the group plans to build a systematic counter-movement against feminism, they also highlight the vulnerability of female domestic violence victims to being infiltrated by feminist ideas. Apparently, female divorcees can easily become feminists to ‘fulfil their biological/ sexual needs’ and, consequently, the ideas of lesbianism and gender equality easily contaminate these women. To justify the arguments with more empirical evidence, AILA cites the growing number of divorces in Tangerang and Depok that have been initiated by the wives themselves. The morality arguments that have focused on the perpetuation of traditional gender norms and the preservation of heterosexual family principles.

As I argue elsewhere, mother figures have been central to Indonesian society. In contrast to Western feminist strategies, traditional womanhood (or motherhood) has sometimes been used as an effective medium for empowerment and for bringing about social and political change. When mothers protest, it shows that something big and concerning is at stake. This inference is possible because of the long-term glorification of motherhood by the state that promotes the moral superiority of women/mothers, while at the same time domesticates and confines them to their reproductive roles. Intimate and private lives have been treated as fodder for public discourse, with private and public spheres becoming increasingly entangled and blurred.

Given these historical and cultural contexts, the idea of ‘mothers’ offers open-ended and multiple possibilities. They can be utilised by any group, either to improve women’s rights or, as in this case, to reinforce traditional gender norms and condemn particular groups. The messages of the AILA highlight the flexibility of an idea and how it can be translated into different actions and rhetoric from one socio-political landscape to another.

Interestingly, the anti-feminist rhetoric of AILA does not wholly reject ideas about gender equality. Some inherent aspects, such as access to education and women’s participation in public, seem to be permitted through the fact that some leading members of AILA hold higher-education degrees and even important career positions (for example, medical doctor). This paradox demonstrates that some aspects of ‘feminism’ are allowed, while ‘intimate spheres’ are increasingly policed to ‘prevent’ the loosening of traditional gender norms and family principles.

Further, through their assumptions about female divorcees and victims of violence, AILA has also proposed criminalising adultery. To borrow scholar Laurent Berlant’s concept, these moves could be termed as the politicisation of an ‘intimate public sphere’—the triumph of private acts over civic acts to redefine a new citizenship.

Since the collapse of the New Order era, the rising religious conservatism in Indonesia has significantly shifted the political landscape and increasingly targeted and publicly politicised that ‘intimate sphere’—from pornography law, to Shari’ah-based local regulations, to the criminalisation of LGBT. However, the demands to regulate intimate spheres intriguingly come from civil society itself ; asking the State to intervene in private lives. These debates and the infiltrations into private spaces inadvertently enables sexuality—previously deemed taboo—to occupy political and public talks. I call it ‘transparent sex’—one of the biggest contributions to the politicisation of sex in Indonesia after the Reformation era.


Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.