Rape Becomes No Joke In Modern Indonesia
The question of whether rape can be joked about is one that is frequently debated. It’s a sensitive topic that has opponents quite reasonably call foul, while supporters cry censorship and demand the right to free speech.
Until Supreme Court justice candidate Muhammad Daming Sunusi made headlines for his offensive quip about rape this week, I was under the impression that rape jokes were generally tolerated in Indonesian society.
I have heard local friends (usually male) tell rape jokes to the laughter of friends. They tell me the laughter comes more from a place of shock than approval, employing the same kind of black comedy enjoyed in the West to joke about death and other touchy subjects.
As the outpouring of condemnation showed this week, Indonesians are no longer laughing at rape, at least in the public realm.
The so-called “joke” came during a fit-and-proper test for the Supreme Court. Daming, chief of the Banjarmasin High Court in South Kalimantan, was asked whether rapists should receive the death penalty for their crime. The question came just weeks after an 11-year-old girl died in Jakarta due to injuries and infections sustained via repeated rape and sexual abuse, and in the aftermath of mass protests in India over the fatal gang-rape of a student.
Daming, who said he only wanted to “break the ice” with the tense interview panel, remarked: “Both the rapist and the victim enjoy it. So, [we] have to think again about the death sentence.”
Those interviewing him reportedly laughed off the remark. But the rest of Indonesia did not. Critics took to traditional media and social media platforms to express their outrage, forcing a tearful apology from Daming a day later.
Daming’s comment showed a severe lack of understanding of rape from someone in the higher rungs of Indonesia’s judiciary. By attracting public criticism, it also revealed a changing attitude toward rape in Indonesian society.
Those who responded with indignation to the judge’s remark demonstrated quite clearly that they viewed rape as an act of violence that is by its nature not consensual. Furthermore, they showed a tendency to side with the victim rather than the perpetrator.
This signals a shift from the attitude held by previous generations that tended to blame victims for somehow “attracting” their attackers.
Former Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo showed that this attitude was not dead when in 2011, after a spate of sexual assaults aboard public minivans, he suggested that women should not wear short skirts when taking public transportation. “You can imagine, if [a woman] wears a short skirt and sits next to the driver, it could be seen as inviting,” the then-governor said. “Wear sensible clothes, not ‘inviting’ clothes.”
Indonesians, or at least Jakartans, refused to buy into this victim-blaming rhetoric. Fauzi’s comment sparked widespread protests from activists in the capital, who rallied behind the call: “Don’t tell us how to dress, tell them not to rape.”
Like Daming, Fauzi yielded under pressure to make a public apology for his remark.
What both comments revealed was an underlying “rape culture” in Indonesia that is finding increasing opposition among the general public, even as it continues to exist among elites.
Rape culture describes a system in which rape is validated and perpetuated via tacit social approval. The most common symptoms include blaming rape victims for presenting themselves as sexual objects, as in the case of Fauzi’s comment, and trivializing rape by joking about it, as in Daming’s case.
The public response to both these cases shows that the Indonesian public is aware of the elements that contribute to a rape culture, and that efforts are being made to eliminate them.
But rape culture is an insidious thing. Already, supporters for Daming and his ill-delivered line are coming out of the woodwork.
“Daming was only nervous and unlucky. He made a violation to the [judges’] code of ethics, but it was unintentional,” lawmaker Trimedya Panjaitan said on Wednesday.
“Nobody’s perfect — it was just a slip of the tongue. We have to see this matter fairly, not emotionally and blindly,” added Constitutional Court Justice Akil Mochtar.
It is fair to say that Daming’s 24-year career as a judge should not be evaluated based on one insensitive statement. Instead of excusing the misgiving, the nation’s leaders should join the public in condemning it, and pointing out why such comments can be so damaging.
When rape is turned into a joke, especially by those in high positions of power, victims are discouraged from reporting the crime and perpetrators are let off lightly. Worse still, by letting rape jokes become part of the dominant culture, rape itself is tacitly condoned and more cases are likely to occur.
The public backlash against Daming’s comment this week is an encouraging development toward eliminating rape culture. But the real work lies in private exchanges to ensure that in Indonesia, rape is no laughing matter.
Catriona Richards is the desk editor for Jakarta Globe Sunday. The opinions expressed are her own.