Why has a bold new policy from government that aims to stop sexual abuse in schools and universities met strong opposition from Muslim groups?
Recent years have seen a growing public debate in Indonesia about the problem of sexual misconduct in the education sector. This is part of a wider and sometimes controversial debate about women’s rights and morality, covering issues including child marriage, public dress and behaviour, and sexual assault.
Tertiary institutions have not escaped attention. In 2018, for example, Indonesia was consumed by the story of how Gadjah Mada University (UGM) mishandled an investigation into a sexual harassment case. In that case, the university leadership determined that the student victim had contributed and consented to the attack.
This sparked an Indonesian version of the “me too” movement in the education sector, with women’s rights activists calling for action to address rampant misbehaviour. A report released by a coalition of media groups under the hashtag #NamaBaikKampus (#CampusReputation) revealed stories of 179 assaults at 79 state, public and private tertiary campuses.
Last year, Minister of Education and Culture Nadiem Makarim condemned any form of sexual harassment and stated that perpetrators must be punished, foreshadowing policy to address the problem. In August 2021, the expanded Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology issued Ministerial Regulation (Permendikbud Ristek) No. 30 of 2021 on Prevention and Handling of Sexual Violence in Higher Education.
The regulation stipulates that sexual violence covers verbal, physical and non-physical actions, including actions undertaken using information technology (Article 5(1)). It specifies 21 forms of activity, such as: discriminatory comments based on physical appearance, sexuality or gender; displaying genitals to another person without their consent; staring with sexual desire that causes uncomfortable feelings; touching, holding or kissing body parts without consent; forcing victims to agree to sexual activity; attempt to rape, even without penetration; rape and penetration using objects; forcing victims to undertake an abortion; forcing or deceiving victims to become pregnant; and deliberately allowing sexual violence to occur (Article 5(2)).
Many of the definitions of sexual violence emphasise the importance of consent by the victim. The regulation notes that consent cannot be considered to have been given in circumstances when the victim was under duress, when the perpetrator misused their higher status, or when the victim was affected by drugs or alcohol (Article 5(3)).
In terms of prevention, the regulation states that students, educators and other tertiary institution staff must all complete a training module on the prevention of sexual violence (Article 6(2)). Another prevention measure in the regulation is that it stipulates that academics must not work or interact with students off campus or outside working hours (Article 7(1)), a common practice in Indonesia. Many Indonesian students would be familiar with academic supervisors asking them to meet outside working hours and in places like lecturers’ homes, or in restaurants. Tertiary institutions are also required to have a unit (satgas) on campus where students or staff can report their cases (Art 6(3)).
One significant development is that the policy requires tertiary institutions to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities to ensure that they can be protected from becoming victims of sexual violence (Article 6(3)(i)). Finally, the regulation covers the important aspects of counselling and rehabilitation for victims.
Response from Islamists
The Permendikbud Ristek is intended to be binding on all tertiary institutions across the country, except those under the administration of the Ministry of Religion. Universities have offered widespread support for the regulation, believing it will help them address sexual misconduct involving academics, staff and students.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Ministry of Religion has also offered its support for the regulation, announcing it will publish a circular instructing the network of Islamic tertiary education institutions under its control (UIN, IAIN and STAIN) to adopt the same policy.
However, strong criticism has come from Islam-based political parties the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the United Development Party (PPP), the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), and several Muslim organisations, including the conservative Family Love Alliance (AILA) and Indonesia’s first progressive Muslim organisation Muhammadiyah.
The response of Muhammadiyah is important, because together with its women’s wing, Aisyiyah, it operates 162 tertiary institutions across Indonesia, which formally come under the administration of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology.
Opposition to the Permendikbud Ristek policy has taken a very similar tone to that against the earlier draft anti-sexual violence bill – which would have been the most progressive and comprehensive criminal justice response to sexual violence against women in the country’s history. This opposition led to legislators deprioritising the bill when it was deliberated in 2019, but it has recently come back on the legislative agenda.
The heated debate over the anti-sexual violence bill was framed simplistically as a struggle between Islamic norms vs western values in determining what constitutes the rights of women in the public and private domains. One of the key issues in that debate (which has re-emerged in the response to the Permendikbud Ristek) is the notion of consent.
Islamist critics have confusingly argued that defining sexual violence as comprising acts undertaken without consent effectively permits or promotes any sexual acts that involve consent. They have argued that the Permendikbud Ristek would promote sex outside marriage or “deviant” sexual practices such as same-sex relations.
Problems with the response
There are several problems with this simplistic reaction to this important policy initiative.
Most disappointingly, outright rejection of the need for the Permendikbud Ristek negates the lived experiences of victims on campus. This demonstrates a lack of insight into contemporary social reality and raises significant questions about what social values these leading Islamic organisations are seeking to prioritise.
By rejecting both the bill on elimination of sexual violence and the Permendikbud Ristek, conservative Muslim groups give the impression that they will take any opportunity to stop measures that offer greater protection for women. Opponents might argue that they are not against protection of women but rather that such policies implicitly and unfairly condemn men as perpetrators, or their motives could become too easily misrepresented and criminalised. But by opposing the bill and regulation they give the impression they believe that any policy that challenges male conduct is suspect, representing an international equality agenda that is somehow un-Islamic or un-Indonesian, or both.
In fact, the regulation seeks to make clear that there are many forms of contact between academics and students, as well as among academics, that could be inappropriate. One might expect organisations that promote healthy moral values based on religious teachings would agree in principle with this general approach. By doing nothing to advance a healthy campus environment and, indeed, standing in the way of reform, these organisations are prioritising their conservative moral agenda over women’s safety. Moreover, they are hindering an important and much needed transformational initiative.
The launch of the regulation reflects the fact that authorities are concerned about campus culture and want to see change. Students and their families invest significant time and effort in gaining qualifications to secure their future. Campuses should support this. There is no place for abuse of authority or for engagement between students and academics or staff that is not directed at solely at advancing their learning objectives.
Whether they intend it or not, their opposition to the Permendikbud Ristek and the anti-sexual violence bill makes conservative Muslim groups look like they are endorsing abuse.