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Indonesia’s Skin Wars

6 minute read
Jason Tedjasukmana | Tegalcangkring

The black bra under the thin yellow kebaya, a close-fitting blouse, leaves little to the imagination. Even more suggestive are the flittering eyes and gyrating hips of the dancer, who chases young men to pull them up on stage. One accepts the offer and makes a grab for her large posterior as she beckons with welcoming eyes. Another makes a gesture at her breasts and then stuffs cash into her hands.

This is not a lap dance in Las Vegas, but a revered Balinese custom known as the joged bumbung, or bamboo dance. Yet it is one of hundreds of traditions across the Indonesian archipelago that could be banned under legislation being deliberated by the national parliament. The bill, which is supported by several Muslim parties, would render illegal any behavior or images that might be considered sexually provocative. Women who bare their shoulders or legs, or artists who use nudity in their work, could be prosecuted for indecency and fined up to 2 billion rupiah (about $220,000) or even jailed for up to 12 years. Kissing in public would be outlawed, as would any other acts considered pornoaksi, an ill-defined term coined by conservative lawmakers to mean “pornographic acts.” The bill also says that “all elements of society are obliged to report” such acts, sparking concern that the law could be abused. “The bill would kill 80% of the art in Bali,” says Cok Sawitri, a Balinese poet and activist who is against the proposed law. “People will be afraid to do what has long been a normal part of their lives.”

Since the fall of strongman Suharto in 1998, Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, has become a more open society, with a freer press and more vigorous political discourse. But the new liberalism has also seen a proliferation of sex videos, magazines and tabloids widely available to anyone who can afford them (the average price of a VCD is 5,000 rupiah, or about 55). Racy programs are aired on late-night television, and one daytime soap even featured an episode in which schoolchildren watched porn videos in a group, then disappeared in pairs soon after. And the first issue of an Indonesian editionalbeit seminudeof Playboy magazine is scheduled to be published on April 7. All this has sparked a backlash from Indonesians worried about the country’s moral direction. “The availability of pornography has reached alarming levels,” says Juniwati Masjchun Sofwan, head of the Committee to Eradicate Pornography, an independent lobbying group. “It has become a social disease.” But critics of the proposed law say that it is an imperfect antidote. Says Bambang Harymurti, chief editor of Tempo, a newsmagazine that has covered the issue in depth: “The problem is not that we don’t have any laws but rather their enforcement. The bill allows anyone to enforce the law, not just the police.”

Take the case of Isabel Yahya, who posed for a photomontage by Indonesian artist Davy Linggar in September. In the painting, the model, 30, is discreetly nude. An angry mob from the Islamic Defenders Front, a vigilante group known for attacking bars and discos, demanded that the work, on display at an indoor exhibition in Jakarta, be taken down and complained to the police. The authorities have charged Yahya with indecency under the criminal code; she faces a potential one year in prison, but the alleged offense would be punishable by up to seven years’ jail under the new pornography law. “This is just another way for certain groups to extort money,” says Yahya. “It’s not about morality.” Others accuse legislators of trying to push through an Islamization program veiled as a campaign against nudity and lewd behavior. “The bill is the beginning of a Shari’a agenda to keep women inside,” warns Harymurti, who is Muslim. Adds an even more alarmed Leo Batubara, a member of the Indonesian Press Council: “We could be going the way of the Taliban.”

That’s not likely, in a country which, although of a Muslim majority, is overwhelmingly moderate, and whose founding fathers resisted attempts to include elements of Islamic law in the 1945 constitution. Current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a moderate Muslim who advocates religious tolerance, has given no clear indication of where he stands on the bill. Last week, however, he appeared to be trying to burnish his Islamic credentials when he mentioned an occasion on which a dancer bearing her midriff was invited to the presidential palace. “I was really disturbed,” Yudhoyono told reporters. “I told the singer to go home even before she performed.”

Resistance from non-Muslims and civil liberties groups has forced legislators to start revising the bill, a process they plan to complete by June. But pressure from influential Muslim organizations to impose harsh sanctions remains strong. “We have to stop this drift toward moral liberalization,” says Din Syamsuddin, chairman of Muhammadiyah, the country’s second largest Muslim organization. Leaders such as Syamsuddin deny any intention of imposing Shari’a or that non-Muslims are being targeted. They also reject the claim that rights will be curtailed, saying that the objective of the law is to protect women and children. “The removal of pornography is not an infringement on press freedom,” asserts Santi Soekanto from the Anti-Pornography Alliance, a civic group. “Most countries have some form of laws regulating the industry.” Opponents say there is sufficient legislation already on the booksit just needs to be enforcedand that the new laws leave the definition of pornography unclear and open to interpretation. “The bill does not differentiate between what is considered pornographic, erotic and indecent,” says Franz Magnis-Suseno, a Jesuit priest. “It is more than a little ridiculous.”

Such ambiguity has community leaders like I Gusti Ngurah Harta worried. A Balinese who is spearheading the predominantly Hindu island’s opposition to the legislation, Ngurah Harta says the bill would effectively be the “third Bali bomb,” destroying efforts to bring the struggling local economy back to life after two devastating terrorist attacks in the past four years. “It would not only ruin tourism by imposing harsh restrictions on what might be considered unacceptable dress or behavior,” he says. “By threatening our culture, arts, dance and creativity, it threatens our way of life and right to exist.”

As the joged bumbung dance comes to a close in the tiny Balinese village of Tegalcangkring, no one in the audience appears overly excited. The men begin to file out while several women and children applaud and compliment the dancer on her performance. One mother proffers a small donation, but then pulls her hand back in jest. “Oops, I better be careful,” she says with a smile. “If the new anti-pornography law gets passed I could be arrested.” The Balinese are still able to joke, but they worry that if the law goes through unamended, smiles will be few and far between.

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