Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Magnificent Obsession of Indonesia's Moral Guardians - How the world's largest Muslim nation deals with pornography.

The year is 2020. Islamic moral police reign supreme, prowling the streets of Indonesia on the lookout for anyone who might dare to defy a decade-old anti-pornography law. They makes arrests for even the most trivial violations - women wearing skirts with hems more than ten centimetres above the ankle, and people uttering the word "naked", regardless of the context. The guilty are banished to a remote uninhabited island in the Indonesian archipelago. Little do the authorities know, however, that this is there where the seeds of a revolution will be planted. This "Big Brother" scenario is the basic plot of the upcoming musical Onrop! (porno spelled backwards) by Indonesian film director Joko Anwar.

Now in production, Onrop! is a satirical take on the political and social controversies connected to pornography in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation but also a secular one. One such event was the uproar surrounding the publication of a toned- down Indonesian edition of Playboy magazine in 2006, which prompted angry militants to trash the publisher's offices in the name of quashing pornography even though the magazine didn't contain anything close to nudity. But that was just a warm up to the controversial 2008 Anti-Pornography Law, an early draft of which would have had violators serving up to 10 years in jail for kissing in public.

Not to be left out, religious police in the staunchly Muslim province of Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra Island, banned women from wearing "tight clothes" last year. Around the same time, Information Minister Tifatul Sembiring blamed the frequent earthquakes and natural disasters in Indonesia on immorality, and in February he suggested forming a special team to block websites containing pornographic materials. And earlier this month, there were protests by hard-line Islamic groups against the premiere of an Indonesian comedy featuring Japanese porn star Maria "Miyabi" Ozawa. The groups aborted the protests, and plans to trash any movie theatre showing the film after finding out it contained no sex scenes or nudity.

So what's the fuss about?

Indonesia is theoretically a conservative Asian society, but dig below the surface and there's the same amount of sex, lies and video tape as in any other nation. Joko said there is much hypocrisy attached to the pornography debate, as political and religious elements within society have made the word taboo without any clear standards or even a simple definition. "We can easily buy porn DVDs, which are literally sold on the streets [in many Indonesian cities]. There are also no rating restrictions at movie theatres, so children can watch movies that should only be viewed by adults," he said, adding that back in the 1990s, titillating locally produced films with narratives about promiscuous sex and adultery dominated the cinema.

Now, filmmakers like Joko face tight censorship regarding sex and nudity, but again, with no clear standards. A kissing scene made the cut in one of his films, but not in another. It depends on who at the government's Film Censor Board is on duty on any given day. Bloody, violent scenes, however, have a lot easier time passing the censors than kissing or sex scenes, as gory locally produced horror films are extremely popular. Joko said some censors saw pornography where there was not the slightest intention to depict it. A poster for one of his films, a thriller called Forbidden Door, was banned because the picture of a man strangling a woman was deemed sexual.

Another movie poster he made for a friend's documentary was also banned on similar grounds. "The poster has a picture of an egg on the tip of an animal horn, which is an illustration of an Indonesian proverb that means 'living on the edge'. Inside the egg were three women in the fetal position. The censorship board said it looked like those women were engaging in a threesome. People have such dirty minds," he said, shaking his head.

Hari Nugroho, head of the sociology department at the University of Indonesia, said curiosity about pornography was common the world over. However, the Indonesian paradox, in which pornography is at once viewed as deeply immoral yet is widely available, was more common in conservative societies where sexuality is repressed by religion. "Cultural tradition alone does not necessarily repress sexuality," he said. "In a conservative society like this, the attempt to draw sexuality away from the public sphere is stronger than in a more liberal society, where the expression of sexuality in public is an individual right." Nugroho said there was a tug of war underway within Indonesian society on the issue. The struggle began following the collapse of the New Order regime of the late dictator Suharto in 1998, which dramatically opened space for democracy and individual expression, including sexually suggestive art, movies and magazines.

Ironically during Suharto's authoritarian regime, racy films were all the rage. "The country is now more democratic, but does not have sufficient tools to regulate pornographic materials. The state then leaves the argument up to proponents who enjoy wealth from pornography- related businesses, and the opponents who want to uphold religious and 'Eastern morality' values," Nugroho said. Other stakeholders in the debate include liberal Indonesians, and supporters of women's rights and the protection of women. Indonesian women's groups generally support regulations against pornography although they argue that the laws against pornography and immorality unfairly target women.

Activist Andy Yentriyanti, an executive at the National Commission on Violence Against Women, said there are three groups that suffer the most amid the controversy over pornography: ethnic and religious minorities, women and artists.

The Anti-Pornography Law, she said, was theoretically intended to
crack down on the distribution of pornographic materials. But after
opportunistic politicians and conservative religious groups were
through with their proposals, the law was expanded to include a set of
regulations that focus on morality. The law defines pornography as "sexual material made by people in the forms of pictures, sketches, illustrations, photos, writings, voice, sounds, motion pictures, animation, cartoons, poems, conversations, body movements and other forms of communication through various mass media or public displays that can arouse sexual desires and/or violate public moral values".

For example, under the law, nude Balinese art or images of native tribespeople in Papua province can be considered pornographic. Despite the apparent flaws, Indonesia's Constitutional Court has struck down challenges to the anti-pornography law by dozens of different groups. "Indonesia is a very diverse country culturally, and the law wants to make it uniform. This is unconstitutional," Yentriyanti said, adding that the commission was lobbying to ensure better implementation of its regulations. Joko said people were so obsessed with the "porn" buzz word that they forgot about other important national issues, including endemic corruption within the country's government, legislature and judiciary, and widespread poverty.

"Or perhaps focusing on pornography is the shortcut to show people that [politicians] are working. I mean, what's the worst thing could happen from pornography? Corruption is much worse," he said. Hera Diani reports for the South China Morning Post

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