Jember, Indonesia – “You know if I was president I’d have Valentine’s Day abolished,” Mufti Ali says.
Sitting at a conference table in the local government building where Mufti serves as a commissioner in Jember, East Java, the legislator says the giving of chocolate or flowers may lead to “free sex” between young people. His wife, Siti, sits next to him nodding in agreement.
This is not the first controversial statement to emanate from the Jember council chambre in the last fortnight.
Last week Mufti Ali made international headlines when he proposed the introduction of virginity “testing” as a prerequisite for 16-year-old girls to graduate from senior high school.
Following outrage from civil rights groups the council has sought to distance itself from the proposal, but Mufti remains clear the government ought to have a role in regulating the sex lives of young people – be it through virginity tests, or the banning of Valentine’s Day.
“Young people are influenced by what they see on TV, stuff from the West. They see people indulging in free sex and they want to do it too. Something must be done about this,” Mufti said.
Mufti is not alone in his views. Last week the Council of Ulema (MUI), Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation, spoke out against the dangers of Valentine’s Day.
MUI representatives reportedly voiced warnings against chocolates that it claimed were packaged with condoms and other products that could encourage pre-marital sex.
In recent years low-level protests against Valentine’s Day have become commonplace. Last year schoolgirls demonstrated in Malang, East Java, declaring February 14 “headscarf” day and distributed flyers explaining how to dress modestly.
Authorities reportedly arrested more than 100 unmarried Indonesian couples on Saturday during hotel room raids in the cities of Surabaya and Malang, in East Java, and in Pontianak on the island of Borneo.
Islam vs tradition
This is the thing about conservative Muslims in general - is that there's this cognitive dissonance, a denial of reality.
“It’s just the normal annual moral panic that is just as routine as the floods in Jakarta,” said Julia Suryakusuma, a socio-political columnist for the Jakarta Post.
“This Islamic conservatism is more of a moral posturing. It happens time and time again, but it doesn’t change the reality as the research has found.”
For all the taboos surrounding premarital sex it appears Indonesian teenagers are still having it.
According to a survey conducted by the National Family Planning Agency in 2010, 51 percent of Jakarta’s teenagers had engaged in premarital sex, with 54 percent in Surabaya, East Java, and 52 percent in Medan, on the island of Sumatra.
“This is the thing about conservative Muslims in general – is that there’s this cognitive dissonance, a denial of reality. Indonesians have always been a raunchy lot,” Suryakusuma said.
Pointing to the animist beliefs that have blended with the import of Islam, Suryakusuma says Indonesians have never been traditionally sexually conservative.
She cites the pilgrimages to Mt Kemukus in East Java, also known as “Sex Mountain”, as an example. Every year thousands of pilgrims – including professed Muslims – flock to Mt Kemukus to have sex with strangers beside the grave of the legendary prince Pangeran Samodro.
The ritual is believed to bring good luck.
“The traditional ancient values and customs have been very open when it comes to sexuality. So this conservatism is very incongruent,” Suryakusuma said.
But if some of Indonesia’s ancient traditions are sexually open, it is unclear whether modernity has brought greater or lesser sexual freedom.
While Saudi Arabia has precipitated the spread of conservative Islam across Southeast Asia by bankrolling networks of mosques and schools, media depictions of liberated Western lifestyles have concurrently influenced the urban upper middle class.
Voices of youth
To Indonesia’s young progressives, the conservative views of councillor Mufti are as confronting as they are to Westerners.
“Trying to tell people how to live their love life is ridiculous,” said Sitta Qarnayni, 31, sitting outside a coffee shop in Kemang, a fashionable sub-district of south Jakarta.
“I don’t really celebrate Valentine’s Day either – not because I’m a Muslim, I just think it’s a bit commercial. But it’s scary when people try and tell you that you can’t celebrate it – everyone should be able to celebrate whatever … they want. Telling someone you love them is a positive thing.”
Sitta, a young professional working in marketing, lives a life far removed from that of women in Indonesia’s provincial towns. She does not drink alcohol, but she likes to party with an international circle of friends whose lifestyle choices she would rather not judge.
“If you want to have sex before marriage that’s totally fine by me,” she said.
“But I also think young people need to be responsible – people need to be educated and aware of the consequences. Here, the culture dictates that if you get pregnant, then you must get married. So you need to think about that.”
But in the coffee shop hangouts frequented by Jember’s young people, the prevailing sentiment remains staunchly conservative.
Most see no harm in the giving of chocolate or flowers to mark Valentine’s Day, but no one was prepared to admit to ever having done so.
Sex before marriage was censured by all male and female interviewees, and most considered kissing to be inappropriate for couples.
“Indonesia is a very diverse place, not everyone is the same,” said Sitta. “But if you want to have a wild life, have free sex and you live in Jember, well, perhaps you should move.”