Jokowi halts Bill that would ban sex outside marriage

Indonesian leader decides to leave matter to next Parliament, after opposition from various quarters

President Joko Widodo says he has asked lawmakers to drop the legislation as there are still materials that need further study. PHOTO: REUTERS
President Joko Widodo says he has asked lawmakers to drop the legislation as there are still materials that need further study. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA • Sweeping legislation that would have criminalised sex between unmarried people, including gays and lesbians, was pushed back last Friday by Indonesian President Joko Widodo days before it had been expected to pass.

The measure, aimed at overhauling Indonesia's penal code, had appeared likely to win approval on Tuesday from the outgoing Parliament, with Mr Joko's blessing.

But after an outpouring of opposition to many of its provisions from rights activists, women's groups, legal experts and other Indonesians, Mr Joko announced that he had asked lawmakers to drop the legislation and leave the matter for the next Parliament, which will be sitting next month.

"After examining input from various groups who objected to some of the substance of the criminal Bill draft, I concluded that there were still materials that needed further study," Mr Joko told reporters at the presidential palace in Bogor, south of Jakarta.

For Islamists in Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim-majority population and an officially secular government, passing the Bill would have been a major victory. Some had said that if Mr Joko secured its passage, his name "would be written in history with golden ink".

Many of the wide-ranging Bill's provisions - it had 628 articles - mirrored elements of syariah, the Islamic legal code.

It would have restricted access to contraception for minors, outlawed cohabitation, restricted freedom of speech, reduced the rights of religious minorities and imposed harsh punishment for insulting the dignity of the president.

A provision punishing sex outside marriage with up to a year in prison would have effectively banned gay and lesbian relations, although the Bill did not spell that out. Indonesia does not allow same-sex marriages.

Indonesian Muslims are known for being relatively moderate, but intolerance has been on the rise for the past two decades.

Around the sprawling archipelago, local governments have enacted more than 600 measures adopting aspects of syariah, including requiring women to wear hijabs and imposing curfews on them unless they are accompanied by a male relative.

While the President has pulled the plug on the national legislation for now, similar measures are certain to be introduced after the new Parliament is sworn in.

"This is the slow-moving Islamisation of Indonesia," said Mr Andreas Harsono, senior Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "For the Islamists, this is the crown jewel of their advocacy."

The legislation would have taken effect in two years, once regulations had been drafted to implement it.

Opponents of the Bill were particularly concerned about provisions that targeted reproductive rights, including restrictions on abortion and on providing contraception to anyone under 18.

The ban on consensual sex between unmarried adults would have applied to foreigners as well as Indonesians, and it would have been likely to discourage some Westerners from visiting at a time when the country is trying to attract more tourists.

And foreign investors, also much desired by the government, are likely to take such far-reaching legislation into account when deciding where to put their money.

"A change in the criminal justice law would obviously have a potential impact on the investment climate," said Mr A. Lin Neumann, managing director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Indonesia, which represents nearly 300 US companies operating in the country.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 22, 2019, with the headline 'Jokowi halts Bill that would ban sex outside marriage'. Print Edition | Subscribe