“It’s not easy to be a lesbian in Indonesia,” says 27-year-old Maria, not her real name. “Although the country and your community won’t despise you, there are always those who will hunt you down for just being who you are.”
Maria, who says she began finding herself attracted to other girls during middle school, says she remains fearful about coming out because of the climate of homophobia that persists in conservative Indonesian culture.
“It’s funny that in a democratic country like Indonesia there are still people who keep a limited mind-set toward same-sex relationships,” she says. “Although everybody has their own opinion, I think it’s quite unwise to hate someone just because he or she likes being with someone who happens to be of the same gender.”
But hate is not just the only threat that people like Maria face in Indonesia. The country’s LGBT community has long faced discrimination, and even physical violence.
New to that list, though, is the threat of death sanctioned by the Indonesian Council of Ulema, or MUI, the country’s highest Islamic clerical body.
On March 4, the MUI issued a fatwa, or edict, proposing punishments ranging from caning to the death penalty for individuals accused of homosexual acts. It also claims that homosexuality is a serious disease, but that like most other illnesses, it can be cured.
“It doesn’t matter that they love each other,” Hasanuddin A.F., the head of the MUI’s fatwa commission, said earlier this month when announcing the anti-LGBT edict. “The law still prohibits it. In Islamic law, it’s a sexual act that must be heavily punished. It would be bad if the government allows same-sex marriage.”
The Indonesian government does not recognize same-sex marriage, but at the same time it does not criminalize homosexual acts. However, two local administrations have issued their own bylaws that treat such acts as crimes.
In 2004, municipal authorities in Palembang, South Sumatra, issued a regulation clumping all LGBT-related activity under “prostitution” — an umbrella term that also includes sodomy, sexual abuse and pornography. Under the regulation, anyone charged with committing any of these “prostitution” activities faces the prospect of up to six months’ imprisonment and Rp 5 million ($380) in fines.
Meanwhile, in staunchly Islamic Aceh province, the only region in the country allowed to implement a version of shariah, local authorities adopted a shariah-based criminal code last year that stipulates punishment of up to 100 lashes of the cane and 100 months in prison for those convicted of same-sex acts, even if consensual.
The province’s criminal code also makes sodomy and the uniquely Islamic offense of zina, or sexual relations out of wedlock, punishable with up to 100 lashes.
While such bylaws have often been greeted as extremist sideshows, the MUI carries more clout with both conservative and moderate Indonesian Muslims, even if its edicts are not legally binding.
Radical groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, have been known to justify their frequent violent attacks on the Ahmadiyah community by citing an MUI fatwa branding the sect heretical.
By inveighing against the LGBT community with its latest fatwa, the council is helping to propagate hatred of an already beleaguered community, says LGBT activist Hartoyo.
“Issuing such a fatwa is as same as promoting hatred and motivating people to carry out violence against others,” he said. “If the MUI dislikes homosexuals, it should express its disapproval through other means, in educated and peaceful ways. It shouldn’t shroud its message with hate and violence.”
Haris Azhar, the coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, or Kontras, calls the MUI’s statement regrettable and says the council has long tried to exceed its actual authority.
“Homosexuality isn’t a crime, nor it is a deviant thing. It is merely one’s preference and it’s private,” he said. “Besides, it isn’t the duty of MUI to determine national law. The MUI is supposed to educate Indonesia’s Muslims. Proposing severe punishment [such as death] shows the MUI’s less-than-mature mind-set.”
“It isn’t official,” he emphasized of the fatwa.
“As a Muslim, I appreciate the MUI’s efforts in issuing the fatwa,” Hartoyo said. “But, again, as a Muslim, I stand against the fatwa because I have the right to express myself and my preferences as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.”
Human rights lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis said groups like the MUI should get past the fact that homosexuality exists in Indonesia, and embrace people for their differences.
“No one should ever have their rights be violated. We’re all equal. Human rights don’t differ among people, whatever their sexual orientation,” he said. “The government mustn’t play favorites in protecting its citizens. Be they heterosexual, gay, lesbian or transgender, they must all be protected. We’re all equal in the eyes of the law.”