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Indonesia’s parliament votes to ban sex outside of marriage

A couple hold hands as they walk on a sidewalk in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Sunday. (Mast Irham/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
3 min

Sex outside of marriage is to be punishable by up to one year in prison under a sweeping criminal code overhaul adopted by Indonesia’s parliament Tuesday, despite concerns from rights groups and many dissident voices.

Adultery is already illegal in the country, and other more restrictive measures are in place regionally. But the sweeping new measures would criminalize all extramarital sex between unmarried individuals and ban cohabitation before marriage, a major step for the world’s third-largest democracy.

The changes to existing legislation with roots in the colonial era have been decades in the making, and would apply to Indonesian and foreign nationals alike, after being passed by all nine parties in parliament. The new penal code needs to be sent to President Joko Widodo to sign, but will automatically pass into law after 30 days unless the president issues an objection. It is likely to take up to three years to be fully implemented, according to Edward Hiariej, the deputy law and human rights minister, the Associated Press reported.

The impact of the law depends in large part on how thoroughly it would be implemented and enforced — a question that remains open.

Human rights groups have long voiced concerns over various aspects of the proposed changes, which also outlaw insulting the president or vice president and challenging the Indonesian state’s ideology, and which expand upon an existing blasphemy law and would place restrictions on protests.

Under the new law, charges of adultery or cohabitation can only be brought by a spouse, parents or children, while insults against the president or vice president must be reported by the current holder of the office. A ministry official quoted by the Agence France-Presse news agency said these provisions would effectively limit the law’s use.

Some activists found cause for relief when — after fierce debate — a provision that would have criminalized gay sex was removed from the new penal code, according to the AP. However, Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch warned that the new rules could be used to “criminalize” members of the LGBTQ community in Indonesia, which does not recognize same-sex marriage.

“We have tried our best to accommodate the important issues and different opinions which were debated,” said Indonesia’s law and human rights minister, Yasonna Laoly, AFP reported.

There were also fears of the impact the new rules could have on the tourism industry and foreign investment, in light of the potential impact on international travelers and local staff.

“We deeply regret the government have closed their eyes,” the deputy chief of Indonesia’s tourism industry board, Maulana Yusran, told Reuters. “We have already expressed our concern to the Ministry of Tourism about how harmful this law is.”

A protest was held outside parliament earlier in the week, although it was much more contained than previous demonstrations against plans for a new criminal code. One such attempt to introduce new legislation in 2019 was met with widespread anger and mass nationwide protests, eventually leading Widodo to suspend the changes.

He helped write Indonesia’s strict adultery laws. Then he had an affair and was publicly flogged 28 times.

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, and has the world’s largest Muslim population, but is ethnically and religiously diverse. In recent years, Islamist conservatism has gained prevalence in mainstream politics.

Stricter laws already apply in the semiautonomous province of Aceh, where a form of sharia law came into effect in 2015. Extramarital sex, same-sex behavior and drinking alcohol are among the acts punishable by public flogging in the region, according to Human Rights Watch.