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One Billion Rising: Indonesia joins world discussion on rape

Today is One Billion Rising, a day of activism around women's rights and against rape across the world. Indonesia is just one of 200 countries involved.

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Indonesian women cheer as they take part in the One Billion Rising campaign, a worldwide call to end violence against women, on Valentine's Day in Jakarta, Indonesia, Thursday.

Dita Alangkara/AP

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When Indonesian high court Judge Muhammad Daming Sunusi joked during vetting for a Supreme Court position last month that women might enjoy rape, he sparked an outcry that, activists say, helped drive nearly a thousand Indonesians onto the streets today.

“Almost everyone is angry with the recent situation,” says Dhyta Caturani, an Indonesian women's rights activist.

Ms. Caturani is taking that anger and trying to accomplish something with it, as are fellow activists in more than 200 countries today involved with One Billion Rising, an event trying to raise awareness about violence against women on Valentine's Day. “There is a lot of rape and sexual violence, and the media is putting these cases in the spotlight,” says Caturani, One Billion Rising's Indonesia coordinator. “Enough is enough.”

In a country where rape jokes are not uncommon, even by public officials, Mr. Sunusi’s comments have helped fuel a movement that, though still small in number, has increasingly been harnessing the power of social media.

“The wave of protests, coming through petitions and mass media, is causing public officials to think they must be careful what they say when it comes to sensitive issues,” says Nur Iman Subono, a political science professor at the University of Indonesia.

The outcry began when Sunusi responded to a question about whether the death penalty should apply to rape rather than the maximum sentence of 15 years. He said it might not, because “both the victims of rape and the rapist might have enjoyed their intercourse together.”

The judge initially said the comment was meant to lighten the mood during the vetting, though he later issued a tearful public apology.

The parliamentary committee in charge of selecting the Supreme Court justices has since rejected Sunusi, mainly because of social media pressure in the form of an online petition asking lawmakers to vote against him – it gained more than 11,000 signatures, a lot for an online petition in Indonesia. An ethics panel is reviewing whether to remove him from the high court in South Kalimantan, 580 miles from Jakarta.

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The buzz his comment generated, meanwhile, continues to reverberate, sparking discussions about widespread sexism among politicians and the quality of the country’s judicial system. 

The way the courts handle these cases, “it’s as though the victims are being raped a second time,” said Gabriel Mahal, a lawyer who has spoken publicly about the need for police and prosecutors to be more gender-sensitive.

What’s happening in Indonesia comes amid global uproar over the brutal rape of a university student in India in December that has Indians examining how the country treats its women. Indonesians have been watching closely to see what happens.

On the heels of the India rape case, activists in Indonesia say Sunusi’s comments struck a chord because they highlighted how little protection women have in cases of abuse.

“People feel there’s not much we can expect from the law,” says Wulan Danoekoesoemo, a cofounder of Lentera Indonesia, a support group for victims of rape and sexual assault.

Brewing dissatisfaction

Sunusi is not the first public official to blame women for inciting rape. In September 2011 then-Jakarta Gov. Fauzi Bowo drew some media attention when he responded to concerns about sexual assault on public transportation by saying that women were inviting rape by wearing provocative clothing.

A year later, the minister of education brought protesters to the street after making remarks that appeared to accuse a young victim of wrongly alleging rape. The girl, age 14, was expelled from school after reporting her case.

Still, neither drew the uproar that the judge's comments have incited. Women’s rights groups say that the awareness of women’s rights that the India rape case brought to countries that still have harsh views of women – and the fact that public officials continue to blame women and girls for sexual assault rather than their abusers – gives momentum to their movement.

“There are more and more people who have an awareness of women’s rights now,” said Caturani. “On the other hand, fundamentalism is rising, and there are a lot of local laws that discriminate against women.”

Role of Islam? 

Most Indonesians practice a liberal, syncretic form of Islam. But many here say conservatism is on the upswing. The government’s National Commission on Violence Against Women has recorded more than 280 local bylaws that discriminate against women, largely by dictating the way they dress.

“Women still face many problems here, even if it’s just fear of being harassed,” says Christin Hutubessy, who joined the event today wearing a T-shirt that read “Rape is never funny.” She also points out that other officials in the room laughed when Sunusi made his comment.

Ingrained patriarchy is just one hurdle to improving rights for women in Indonesia, says Mr. Subono. The women’s movement is fragmented, which makes it difficult to mobilize.

Women’s rights activists hope that by holding discussions, film screenings, and even dances they can inject vibrancy into their activities, which will help unite them, and appeal to the general public. Already they’ve had a number of people join them because of their events. Mahardhika Sadjad joined a recent discussion about violence against women in the run-up to Thursday’s event.

She says it can be difficult to mobilize people against the act of rape, but when a figure like Sunusi makes such insensitive comments, it gives them a figure to target. “It’s easier to be angry toward an issue, when there’s a face for what you hate.”

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