Women Protest Rape Remark in Indonesia

Nothing illustrates the strains on Indonesian society better than what happened in Jakarta when the city governor, Fauzi Bowo, said last week that women who wear miniskirts in public are inviting rape.

The howls have been heard far and wide, with the governor becoming an object of derision in editorial columns and around water coolers throughout the city.

About 50 furious miniskirted women showed up at a traffic circle in the middle of Jakarta Sunday for a symbolic protest against the remarks. The governor Saturday hastily backed away, saying “I apologize because my earlier statement was very prone to misinterpretation.”

It's hard to imagine what was misinterpreted. After the gang rape of a woman aboard a public minibus became known last week, Fauzi said: “You can imagine, if [a woman] wears a short skirt and sits next to the driver, it could be seen as inviting. Wear sensible clothes, not ‘inviting’ clothes.”

A rapidly modernizing metropolis in a predominantly Muslim country, Jakarta is a variegated blend of styles and traditions. While head-to-toe flowing black veils are rare, plenty of women cover their hair with a traditional scarf. Others wear tight jeans and blouses, and miniskirts are popular. This proud tolerance is showing signs of increasing strains, with some people falling in line with conservative Islam and calling for a more Islamic society. In particular, organizations like the Islamic Defenders Front, known by its initials FPI, sometimes attack women they deem to be wearing improper dress.

As much as Fauzi’s comment, it is such strains that drove the miniskirted women to rally Sunday afternoon. Jakarta’s packed buses are a nightmare for women who are groped and assaulted, leading some to suggest that the problem is bad enough that the authorities should run women-only buses. Others say that is giving in to the problem and that society has to be educated that violating women is a criminal act, no matter what they are wearing.

“It’s not the fault of what we wear; rapists have a mental disorder,” said rally organizer Faiza Mardzoeki. The activists said they were afraid Bowo’s statement would lead to a ban on revealing clothing. “Instead of blaming what women wear, the government is supposed to provide security especially on public transportation,” Mardzoeki added.

Fauzi’s statement, that miniskirts were “inviting” to rapists came after a two highly publicized attacks on women on public transportation by the drivers themselves, including the gang rape of a 27-year-old woman last weekand the brutal rape and slaying of a college student last month. The rape victim said later she had identified a bus driver as one of the men who attacked her and police have arrested a driver and an accomplice for the earlier slaying.

Women's groups are demanding the governor guarantee women’s safety on buses and other public transport. On Monday, police began removing dark tinting from minibus windows, saying predators can take advantage of the gloom.

"The way women dress is not the cause of sexual violence," Dhyta Caturani, a protester dressed in a miniskirt and revealing top, told reporters.

An Amnesty International report last November said that many Indonesian women and girls, especially those from poor and marginalized communities, struggle to achieve reproductive health in the face of discriminatory laws, policies and practices.

Government restrictions and discriminatory traditions threaten Indonesian women, the report noted. While the government has pledged to enhance `gender equality, “many Indonesian women still struggle for fair and equal treatment,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General. “A combination of unchallenged social attitudes, unfair laws and stereotyped gender roles often relegate women to second-class status.”

Even though the government has taken steps for better protection for women victims of violence, the report noted, “It is failing to ensure that survivors of rape can have access to health information and services. Although abortion is legally available to women and girls who become pregnant as a result of rape, this fact is not well known, even amongst health workers, and victims of rape can face significant obstacles to accessing safe abortion services.”

Domestic workers in particular face specific risk of abuse because they are not accorded traditional protections as workers at a time when their work conditions often put them at greater risk of sexual harassment and violence, and they are also at risk becoming pregnant as a result of rape.

Nia Dinata, a movie director who took part in the rally, said the apology from the governor was just a political statement to save his image ahead of next year’s gubernatorial election. “The level of education of men will determine how they respect women, no matter what we wear,” she said. “A good man who respects his mother must be able to respect other women. I guess Fauzi Bowo doesn’t.”

The Manpower and Transmigration Ministry is attempting to address the problem. In a prepared news release, a spokesman said Monday that “To prevent the crimes, companies must provide transportation to and from work for female employees working odd hours.”

Indonesia’s employment laws stipulate that employers that hire female workers who travel to or from work between 11 pm and 7 am must guarantee their security, including providing transportation. Pick-up points for female employees must be safe and easily accessible, and the vehicles must also be registered with the company.

The laws are often ignored by employers, critics say.

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