Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sex education, not 'sex parties': Protesting Valentine's Day in Indonesia

Cross-posted on Muslimah Media Watch.


In recent months, Indonesia has been making the Asian news every time there is a non-Muslim celebration. I first noticed this with the debates on wishing "Merry Christmas" by Muslims to Christians, on Christians holding Christmas mass, and the accounts of violence done to churches in December 2012. A few weeks ago, the same debates were repeated on the occasion of Imlek, or Chinese New Year, on the mistaken basis of it being a Buddhist tradition, even though it is a national holiday. Now, the latest controversy -- which repeats itself each February -- is Valentine's Day, deemed a "foreign" and "infidel celebration", and an excuse for teenagers to engage in premarital sex.

Several groups in particular prominently voiced their opposition to Valentine's Day: Nadhlatul Ulama, Indonesia's biggest orthodox Muslim organisation; the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam or FPI), and the Indonesian Council of Ulema (Majlis Ulema Indonesia or MUI), a clerical body that includes the previous groups among others. This year, government officials and clerics from various cities   called for boycotts and in response, students (even those from elementary schools, which shocked some readers) from various cities and islands across Indonesia organised Valentine's Day protests on 13 February.

Young hearts: Al Fattah Islamic elementary school students color placards in Surakarta on Wednesday before taking part in an annual rally denouncing the celebration of Valentine’s Day. (JP/Kusumasari Ayuningtyas)
Kids rejecting Valentine's Day. Source: The Jakarta Post

Despite the headlines identifying these calls against Valentine's Day as coming from "conservative" and "radical" "clerics", the accompanying photos all show, without fail, Muslim women with hijab and some in niqab protesting and holding placards.

Indonesia conservatives protest against Valentine's Day
Muslim women shouldn't celebrate Valentine's Day. Source:  AFP/Tengri News

Islamic radicals protest 'sexy' Valentine's Day in Indonesia
More Muslim women not celebrating. Source:  AFP/The Telegraph
Muslim students hold posters during a protest against Valentine's Day in Surabaya, Indonesia on Thursday.
Not celebrating. Source: Toronto Star
Indonesia, Muslims, Valentine's Day
Still not celebrating. Source:

According to one of the clerics in Aceh's Ulema Council, one reason why celebrating Valentine's Day is wrong is that it is endogenous to Indonesia and Islam, which is thus the same as "promoting faiths other than Islam". Even accepting the idea that to celebrate Valentine’s Day is to proselytize for a faith other than Islam, the last time I checked, Indonesia is constitutionally a secular country where promoting any religion is allowed. Despite laws protecting freedom of religion, the growing influence of extreme Islamic opinions and intolerance of the activities of religions other than Islam is becoming increasingly common and visible – as shown by the recent violent incidents (here, here, and here).

Another reason to not celebrate Valentine's Day, according to Depok's deputy mayor, is that "expressing love freely... could lead to forbidden sexual relations." He specifically felt that teenagers should not celebrate it because of their tendency towards having premarital sex. A representative from Nadhlatul Ulama even claimed that teenagers who "express love and affection" on this day would end up in a "sex party". This day has been described as a "channeling of lust between unmarried couples", "promiscuity" and "pregnancies out of wedlock".

Indonesia's National Family Planning Coordinating Board (Badan Kependudukan dan Keluarga Berencana Nasional or BKKBN) has identified 'free sex' (seks bebas or premarital sex) as a major youth problem alongside drugs and HIV/AIDS. The link made between premarital sex and Valentine's Day shows that "the West" and "Western culture" are  convenient abstract scapegoats for social issues, because 'free sex', or consenting sexual intercourse between unmarried persons is in fact legal, since the law only penalises adultery committed by married persons.

The worries voiced by opponents of Valentine's Day, such as sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies out of wedlock, reveal  the inefficacy of and confusion surrounding sex education. For example, during last year's resistance, one opponent from Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia made the opposite correlation between contraception and "social evils":

Siti Nafidah, the head of the HTI’s provincial women’s chapter, said the threat of youths engaging in premarital sex as part of the Valentine’s Day spirit was “right before our eyes.”
“There’s even a convenience store giving away condoms with purchases of chocolate,” she said. She said this could eventually lead to a host of social evils, from unplanned pregnancies and abortions, to the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The state of sex education in Indonesia is woefully lacking and there have been calls for more comprehensive sex education in schools -- one that teaches the difference between love and sex, diseases, contraception, and what constitutes harassment. The lack of effort to rectify this is shown by the conservative and flimsy response of the Minister for Education and Culture (who had earlier suggested that rape victims enjoy being raped) towards these calls:

"According to our traditions, it is indecent to talk about it, and that is my standpoint. I don't believe we need that yet. (...) I am sorry, mentioning s-e-x is already taboo to me," he said.
One counter-movement to Valentine's Day was a movement for a Cover Aurat Day (the official Gerakan Hari Menutup Aurat Facebook page), started in 2012 by Herry Nurdi, together with a teachers working group. The aim of this movement is to reject Valentine's Day and replace it with Cover Aurat Day in order to fight 'moral problems', denounce (commercial) stakeholders, encourage society to cover up and avoid 'free mixing' and 'free sex'. To achieve this, activists protested on the streets and in groups on motorcylces, handing out headscarves and posters to the public.

Students hand out Hijabs during Valentines Day Protest
Promoting Cover Aurat Day in 2012. Source: Demotix

On a more optimistic note, there have been several events that demonstrate how Valentine's Day could be used to promote love and understanding. Some examples are an event for female inmates in a prison in Denpasar, Bali, designed to instill an "atmosphere of love", and a campaign to "promote love and reduce smoking" on Valentine's Day in 2009. A reader's letter to the Jakarta Post emphasised the need to apply the rhetoric of "expressing love to followers of other religions" instead of branding them as heretics, pointing to Valentine's Day as a positive opportunity. Some counter-protests focused on eliminating "radical" groups and associated violence such as the Islamic Defenders Front.

As these contrasting events show, how Valentine's Day does not mean anything by itself -- it is the way that we choose to celebrate it that has meaning. The assumption that it is only about sex reveals a deep-rooted fear and insecurity on the part of the traditionalists on how to raise the next generation of Indonesians in a time of high unplanned pregnancies, rape, and HIV/AIDS, and a lack of sex education. At the same time, deflecting the blame onto an abstract concept such as "the West" and "infidel culture" is unfortunately always useful in distracting people from focusing on real solutions for Indonesia's teenagers.

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