No Sex Outside of Marriage: Indonesia’s Controversial New Criminal Code

Photo Credit: The Economic Times

By Isana Raja
Managing Editor

Indonesia bans sex outside of marriage in a new criminal code passed on December 6, 2022. If caught, unmarried couples could be jailed for up to a year, and couples who live together out of wedlock could be jailed for up to six months. 

The criminal code reform was initially drafted to be passed in 2019, but the collective action of thousands of student protesters effectively postponed the vote. However, the bill was accepted this time around due to the rising tide of conservative Islam that has swept the country. 

A couple can only be arrested if they are caught and reported by a family member. But parental disapproval of a relationship or religious shaming from uncles and aunts is forcing many Indonesian citizens to live in a constant state of Orwellian fear.  

Beyond simply being invasive, Human Rights Watch has deemed this law as violating international human rights and standards. The LGBTQ+ community is facing especially harsh ramifications. Same-sex marriage is illegal in Indonesia, so all LGBTQ+ couples living together are at risk of facing jail time.  

Women are disproportionately affected as well. As in any patriarchal society, women’s sexuality is heavily regulated by notions of purity and morality. Consequently, Indonesian women are more likely to be punished for having extra-marital sex by relatives or even their own spouse, while men will likely get off with a warning. 

Other marginalized groups, such as religious minorities and Indigenous peoples, who don’t have official marriage certificates, will be at fault for breaking the law. Rural Muslim couples who married through nikah siri, an Islamic ceremony, will also be considered illegitimate– ironic considering the law is a byproduct of Islam itself. 

How will tourism be affected?

The new law doesn’t just affect Indonesia’s citizens. Hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to the island of Bali each month– the country’s party hotspot. Indonesia’s tourism-reliant economy suffered immensely during the COVID-19 pandemic; throughout the entire year of 2021, just 51 foreigners visited Bali. Those working in the nation’s tourism industry know just how crucial it is to keep their numbers up during this recovery period; however, many are fearful that the new law will scare tourists away. 

What does this mean for unmarried couples planning a tropical getaway? Or single visitors looking to spend a night with an Indonesian local? Well, the answer isn’t clear as of now. Indonesian government officials have tried to assuage worries by assuring tourists that they will not be charged under the law. Bali’s governor claims that “tourists [will] not have their marital status checked at hotels or accommodations.”

But others are skeptical. “Now foreign tourists will think twice about traveling to Bali because they might be jailed for violating the laws,” says Putu Winastra, the chairman of the Association of The Indonesian Tours And Travel Agencies (ASITA). Posts from online Bali Travel Forums and groups seem to back this doubt, with many long-time Bali-goers opting to take a vacation elsewhere this year. 

Regardless of how tourism changes, the implementation of this new code will encourage the extortion of bribes. Indonesia is already plagued by corruption: it ranks 89th out of 180 countries on the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) and 8 in 10 Indonesians have reported corruption in the government and businesses. Through selective policing, citizens and foreigners alike will be targeted for having extra-marital affairs by officials looking to make a couple of extra rupiahs. 

What does this mean for Indonesia’s future?

Indonesia’s fledgling democracy was doing well during the reconstruction years post-dictatorship. With the downfall of Suharto in 1998, Indonesians turned over a new leaf and championed liberalism, freedom of speech, and civilian rule. However, underlying institutional flaws dating back to the Dutch colonial era ceded an environment that has allowed radicalism to fester. 

In the most recent election, President Joko Widodo chose Ma’ruf Amin, an Islamic cleric, as his running mate. The 76-year-old had issued fatwas condemning homosexuality and premarital sex in the past, making Widodo’s choice a controversial one. Nevertheless, the decision is on par with the recent trend of politicizing Islam for votes. 

Traditionally, Islam was not practiced stringently in Indonesia. Islam arrived in the country in the 1500s and was heavily influenced by Hinduism, Christianity, and pre-existing Indigenous religions. For centuries, Indonesians practiced their own form of Islam that was fused with national traditions and diverse belief systems. 

However, as this new criminal code evidences, Indonesian Muslims have started to mirror the hardline beliefs of Islamic countries in the Middle East with the politicization of Islam and a push to follow Sharia law more strictly. This upsurge of conservative Islam is not only a warning for women, the LGBTQ+ community, and other minorities in the country – free speech is in jeopardy as well. 

“It is never a good thing when a state tries to legislate morality,” says Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, DC. “The new code puts civil liberties at risk and gives the state powerful tools to punish ideological, moral and political offenses.” 

The new criminal code is a step backward for civil liberties and rights, and bad news for democracy. If Indonesia continues down this road, the country just might find itself at the precipice of an Islamic autocracy. Yet there still is hope. The collective power of student protesters was enough to stall the bill the first time– there’s no telling how the backlash from citizens and foreigners alike will affect the implementation of the criminal code reform.

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