Indonesia’s Anti-Porn Bill is Anti-Pluralism

The Indonesian Parliament has re-introduced a bill (originally proposed in 2006) intended to define pornography as “sexual material that includes photographs, cartoons, films, poems, vocalization, conversations and body gestures in the media, or in public shows, exhibits or performances.”

Though the bill has measures against child pornography and Internet porn, it has encountered serious opposition for its wide categorization of obscene behavior, which has provoked widespread criticism and protests. Opponents worry about everything ranging from tourism industry concerns in Bali to concerns over criminalizing traditional clothing.

Proposed changes would allow tourists to wear bikinis on the island of Bali, but they don’t address local Balinese clothing. Many traditional Indonesian dress styles do not cover the entire body, and this bill could easily be manipulated into criminalizing such styles, coming uncomfortably close to a dress code.

Many of those against the bill are worried that it threatens national unity; though Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country, it has significant minorities from other religions who feel that this bill is pushing a definition of pornography under the guise of “Islamicizing” the entire nation or riding roughshod over Indonesia’s secular pluralism.

There are other issues at hand, as well: the proposed definition of pornography casts a very wide net. Defining pornography as things that “arouse sexual propensity, desires or longings” sets a decidedly moral tone without a concrete system of defining methods of evaluating what “sexual desire” actually is or what “incitement” includes. This is especially problematic because conservative Islamic parties, who may define “incitement” differently than Indonesians of other faiths, introduced and backed the bill.

And, despite proposed allowances for tourists, this bill would apply to all Indonesians if passed. Indonesians who don’t fit Islamic ideals of modesty will likely suffer. Those who wish to wear traditional dress, showcase traditional artwork (some of which employ nudes), or just want to dance in public might very well have their clothing, artwork, or conduct labeled as “pornographic.”

The bill’s aim isn’t necessarily a bad one. But the wideness of its net belies the fact that it can criminalize cultural traditions. And it’s much easier to focus on penalizing surface infractions (like punishing those who wear revealing clothing) than to seek out and deal severely with those who exploit women and children for the sex industry. The latter should be the main focus of the bill, not the attempt to define morality.

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