Friday, February 27, 2015

Indonesia: Sacred Virgins and the Death of a Secular Surabaya


Surabaya’s pious female mayor, appears never to have consulted Voltaire’s wisdom. Virginity, in Risma’s view — or more specifically, religious chastity — is so important that it must be imposed on individuals by the state.


Let’s talk about sex

Thanks to condoms, birth control pills and various oher contraceptives, sex can now be enjoyed freely and safely by all of humankind, regardless of marital status. Fact.

What is to be gained, then, from needlessly prolonging one’s virgin years, even as the body desires sexual fulfillment?

Why should unmarried couples be expected to waste years of their lives proactively avoiding sex, when we know that sex is essentially harmless — not to mention immensely pleasurable — if performed safely and with mutual consent?

As the 18th-century philosopher Voltaire once said: “To think of virginity as a virtue — and not a barrier that separates ignorance from knowledge — is an infantile superstition.”

Tri Rismaharini, Surabaya’s pious female mayor, appears never to have consulted Voltaire’s wisdom. Virginity, in Risma’s view — or more specifically, religious chastity — is so important that it must be imposed on individuals by the state.

As a secularist and a human rights defender, I find it difficult to conceive of anything more dystopian, anything more contrary to individual liberty, than Risma’s ban on Valentine’s Day and her de facto criminalization of premarital sex.

For those who have forgotten, or are not yet familiar with Surabaya’s Valentine’s Day raids, allow me to explain how “Mother Risma” recently attempted to “save” her young constituents from the sin of premarital sex.

Raids and arrests

Beginning on Valentine’s Day morning, and ending on Feb. 15, Surabaya police blitzed through hotels and dormitories, arresting any couple suspected of having (or planning) premarital sex. That the couples had chosen to fornicate in private, with mutual consent, and mostly with the aid of contraception, was of no importance to Risma or the police. On Valentine’s Day, Risma declared, all premarital sex is equally abhorrent and deserving of arrest.

In addition to hotels and dormitories, police also raided Surabaya’s minimarts in search of unscrupulous vendors selling contraceptives to unmarried couples. Hundreds of condoms were thus confiscated by police, who feared that such items might enable unmarried couples to practice safe sex.

Police also seized several hundred kilograms of chocolate confections during the raids, ostensibly for being sold in combination with condoms. Susanto, a spokesman at the Indonesian Commission for Child Protection (KPAI), even claimed that some stores had given free condoms to young customers who purchased Valentine’s Day chocolates. Minimarts denied these allegations, however, claiming that images of so-called chocolate-condom “packages,” which appeared on social media, had been photoshopped by anti-Valentine’s activists.

By the end of the operation, 223 couples had been arrested by the police, according to The detainees were then held at a nearby “social center” following their arrest, where they were separated from one another until a parent or relative came to “pick them up.”

Their only crime? Attempting to have consensual sex behind closed doors, most probably with the aid of a condom.

Risma’s motives

Before we consider the morality of Risma’s Valentine’s Day purge, it is important to first understand why Risma feels justified in her use of state power to repress premarital sex.

In the year 2015, given how much we now know about safe sex, there is really only one type of person who has the audacity to campaign against sexual freedom for consenting individuals, and against the use of contraception among unmarried couples.

That person is, of course, a religious person.

“It is no accident that people of faith often want to curtail the private freedom of others,” the philosopher Sam Harris said in his 2006 book “The End of Faith.” “This impulse has less to do with the history of religion and more to do with its logic, because the very idea of privacy is incompatible with the existence of God.”

As a devout Muslim, Risma firmly believes that sex before marriage is a mortal sin — a crime against God. After all, if God were not the victim of this so-called crime, then who else could it be? Who else could bear witness to an offense that takes place behind closed doors, and who else could press charges in lieu of any human plaintiff? Needless to say, only an all-knowing and all-seeing entity could detect such a clandestine and victimless crime.

Preventing premarital sex out of fear that it would offend the almighty is clearly the motive for Risma’s ban on Valentine’s Day, and also explains her hostility to contraception. Strangely, however, when the dreaded Feb. 14 came along, Risma seemed hesitant to admit that her religious convictions were the true source of her concerns.

If Risma was honest about her motives, she would have openly declared that her belief in zina — the Islamic sin of fornication — compelled her to meddle in the sex lives of her constituents.

But instead of admitting this simple fact, Risma threw up a few classic red herrings, arguing that her proscription of Valentine’s Day is a defense against “Western culture” rather than an attempt to please God: “We hope that the ban [on Valentine's Day] will support our efforts to save Surabaya’s children from ‘new colonialism,’ ” Risma said on Feb. 14, “which takes the form of illegal drugs, alcohol and other negative Western cultural influences.”

This is a convenient way of shifting the blame for all the perceived vices of Risma’s own constituents — drug use, free sex etc. — onto an external factor beyond her control; in this case, of course, the evil West.

But why is that Western culture, as Risma’s conceives it, appears to be replete with “negative” influences? What is it about Western values that warrants such grotesque repression as Risma’s Valentine’s Day raids, and her cruel denial of contraceptives to young couples? What exactly is she afraid of?

First of all, I will grant Risma one point: Perhaps it is true that Western ideas about individual liberty and free sex have led to greater promiscuity in Surabaya. In fact, this is probably true of all urban areas throughout the developing world. This admission does not mean, however, that individual liberty and free sex are intrinsically immoral, simply because such ideas tend to encourage higher rates of fornication. Rather, for premarital sex to be immoral, it would have to result in some kind of harm to either of its participants. Sadly for Risma, however, we know all too well that premarital sex can be safely enjoyed with the aid of contraception.

So what’s the problem?

It seems obvious to me that Risma’s ban on Valentine’s Day has absolutely nothing to do with keeping her constituents safe from physical or psychological harm, and everything to do with not angering her God. And if this is not clear enough already, then I invite you to play a thought experiment.

A thought experiment

Suppose that some product of “Western culture” inspired two unmarried Surabayans to purchase a condom and have consensual sex. The couple go off and have an enjoyable tryst, nobody gets harmed, and nobody else is even aware that an act of fornication has taken place. For Risma to claim that such sex is an immoral manifestation of “new colonialism,” or that it reflects a “negative … cultural influence,” would be incredibly odd, given that the outcomes of the event were entirely positive.

Western culture should not be considered immoral simply because it encourages premarital sex. If anything, Western-style sexual freedom appears to be a superbly ethical idea, since it encourages only safe sex among consensual partners, and considers the use of contraception to be a necessary precondition.

This rather straightforward moral calculus changes entirely, however, with the introduction of an omniscient God figure who has placed a jealous ban on premarital sex. In this context — which Risma considers to be our contemporary reality — fornication is considered immoral not for its real-world consequences, but for the apparent displeasure it causes to God.

Using this rationale, then, if God really is all-knowing and all-seeing, then he is presumably watching in tortuous agony each time an unmarried Surabayan sets off to the 7-Eleven to buy a condom. Astonishingly, however, time after time, God fails to defend his young virgins from the evil lure of contraception and fornication. This inertia, of course, begs a few questions.

“Why doesn’t he intervene?” one of Risma’s chaste supporters might ask. “Why doesn’t he, with all his incredible powers, simply remove the condoms from the shelf and save the young virgin from sin?”

These are very reasonable and pertinent questions, to which those who believe in God must provide answers, particularly those, like Risma, who are so convinced of God’s existence that they believe his will should be imposed on everyone else by force. In order of logical probability, then, consider the following options:

1) God is secretly a closet public health nerd, and he knows that contraception is one of the greatest inventions in human history — or, perhaps, he invented it himself! — and thus resolves to let the young virgin do the sensible thing and purchase a condom at the 7-Eleven.

2) God really can see all of the world’s unmarried couples during the act of fornication, but is unable to intervene because he is either too tired, too busy, concentrating on something more important, or not truly omnipotent.

3) God really can see all of the world’s fornicators, doing their thing, but does not intervene because he feels that sexual morality is a private matter.

4) God does not exist, has never existed, and therefore does not have an opinion on sexual morality, let alone the capacity to police it.

The fact that God never intervenes to prevent his young virgins from fornicating — even on the dreaded Valentine’s Day! — ought to suggest to Risma that God really doesn’t so much care about how, why, where, when or with whom his subjects choose to have sex, or whether or not they use protection. (If he exists at all, that is.)

Risma, commanded by God?

This leads me on to another doctrinal conundrum that Risma routinely fails to address: If ultimately God judges his adherents at the gates of heaven, rather than here on Earth, then why is it Risma’s duty, as the publicly elected mayor of Surabaya, to punish those who privately disobey his commands?

This, I believe, really gets to the core of Risma’s bigoted view of premarital sex, and the danger of her religious beliefs in general. To put it briefly, Risma is convinced that she has been elected to serve God, first and foremost, as well as the people of Surabaya. In fact, in June 2014, Risma said exactly that: “Morally, I am accountable to God and the people of Surabaya [emphasis added].”

This conflict between Risma’s two perceived benefactors — one real and one imagined — is causing her to make totally irrational policy decisions based on religious dogma and fear of God, rather than pursuing what is best for her constituents. Clearly, God and the people of Surabaya have very different interests, particularly when it comes to sexual fulfillment.

After the disastrous shutdown of Surabaya’s Dolly red-light district in June last year, Risma’s Valentine’s Day raids are really just the latest tragic installment in a long line of God-fearing policy blunders, driven by her religious faith.

Make no mistake, Risma believes that her power as an elected politician can and should be used to impose her personal religious prejudice on private individuals, insofar as it pleases God’s prudish will.

This sort of authoritarianism should be of tremendous concern to anyone who believes that Indonesia is better off as a secular democracy, in which religious adherence is a private matter for each individual, and not to be enforced by the state. (I note that Indonesia’s Constitution mandates a compulsory belief in God — this, too, is problematic, and shall be considered in Part 2.)

For some strange reason, though, few commentators have been brave enough to speak out against Risma’s lurch toward theocracy, even as she hacks away at Indonesia’s secular Constitution.

Among unelected religious officials, the urge to police the sex lives of private individuals is, of course, pathologically common. But Risma’s insistence on using secular, state institutions — such as the police and local government — to enforce religious observance is something entirely different, and vastly more dangerous.

I am going to pay Risma the compliment of assuming that she does not want Surabaya to become another Aceh, Tehran or Riyadh. However, given her recent attempts to micro-manage the sex lives of her constituents, it does seem that Risma is somewhat tantalized by the idea of using state power to enforce her own petty religious prejudice on everyone else, whether they like it or not.

This creeping theocracy has to stop.

Patrick Tibke is a Jakarta-based writer and a recent graduate of the Southeast Asian Studies program at SOAS, University of London.


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