Four years ago, the Supreme Court struck down Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalised adultery. At the time, the apex court had noted that few nations had laws penalising adultery, although many retained some form of a legal injunction against the practise as part of divorce laws. The court took note of the fact that several countries had removed adultery from the list of crimes. Among these are China, Japan, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, and most European countries. At that time, it was countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh in our neighbourhood and others such as Morocco and the United Arab Emirates that criminalised adultery.
Of course, some conservative American states also held adultery to be illegal. Indonesia, which already had adultery as an offence, has now added itself to the list of countries that criminalise both premarital and extramarital sex. Its Parliament this week approved changes to its law that bring about sweeping changes in personal law that prohibit cohabitation between consenting but unmarried adults.
The legislative changes that push Indonesia from the ranks of relatively liberal Muslim nations to the list of those that proscribe all sex outside marriage have been described as regressive by critics but held to be necessary by its legislators. Within hours of Parliament approving the changes, protestors were on the streets to “reject the passing of the criminal code revision.”
The changes will cause special concern to members of the LGBTQ community because same-sex marriages are not allowed in Indonesia. Members of the community risk becoming easy targets for law-enforcers and are naturally outraged by the amendments.
Business groups have warned that the amendment could impact tourism, because the law applies to visiting foreigners as much as it does to locals. But it is not just the brakes that have been put on sex outside marriage that concern interested observers. They see in the new law signs of regression in a Muslim country that many once considered reasonably liberal in matters of personal choices. A wire agency quoted Amnesty International Indonesia director Usman Hamid as saying, “We are going backward… repressive laws should have been abolished but the bill shows that the arguments of scholars abroad are true, that our democracy is indisputably in decline.” The government has defended the decision to amend laws as being necessary to protect the institution of marriage.
While the devil will lie in how strenuously the law is enforced in the country, the mere thought of committing proscribed acts should have a chilling effect on the conduct of people. Rights groups have warned that more protests are on the cards. Perhaps the only consolation is that the criminal code will not apply immediately; the process of transition may take up to three years.