Are we living in different times in Indonesia or was Julia Perez just different?
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Are we living in different times in Indonesia or was Julia Perez just different?

ON JUNE 10, 2017 it was announced that Julia Perez, the Indonesian entertainer popularly known as ‘Jupe’, had died of cervical cancer.

Immediately, Indonesian Twitter responded with tributes to the colourful star who was as loved as she was divisive.

Born Yuli Rachmawati, Jupe was primarily known for being a dangdut singer, a kind of music popular in Indonesia once described by the BBC as ‘a cross between techno and Bollywood’.

She was also an actress, having appeared in over 20 films, and had several side businesses including a fried chicken shop called JFC (Jupe Fried Chicken).

She was often mocked for her suggestive dance moves, but to write her off as just a ‘raunchy singer’ is to miss the point and dismiss Jupe’s significant contribution to promoting dialogue and freedom of expression in Indonesia, a country with the largest Muslim population in the world.

Certainly Jupe was never one to shy away from controversy. Her first album released in 2008 was entitled ‘Kamasutra’ and came with a free condom.

In a country where sex education is not routinely well taught in schools (if at all), this was a trailblazing move in promoting safe sex. Local Islamic groups, not for the last time, condemned her and she was banned from performing in some cities across Indonesia.

SEE ALSO: 1 in 10 Indonesians supports an Islamic caliphate – survey

If this troubled Jupe then she certainly didn’t show it. In 2012 she made good on a promise to pole dance at a traffic light in Kuningan in Jakarta if she reached a million Twitter followers, and in 2013 she became a condom ambassador for Indonesia’s National Condom Week. The event was eventually cancelled after Muslim groups complained it promoted promiscuity, but her involvement and the controversy it caused continued to raise awareness about the prevention of STDs.

Arguably her finest hour came in 2011 when the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the most senior Muslim authority in Indonesia, accused her of being ‘pornographic’ in her dance performances. Where others would perhaps have been chastened, Jupe demanded to meet with the MUI and stared down the clerics while at the same time apologising, one imagines with her tongue firmly in her cheek, for being too sexy in the first place.

Jupe addressed the controversy in 2012 in an interview she gave in English with the BBC and, displaying her typical brutal honesty, called out the MUI for what she saw as blatant hypocrisy,

“It’s because I’m sexy, that’s why they don’t like me,” she said. “They think I cannot behave myself, that this is [strict] Muslim country. They say: ‘Julia, you cannot be sexy here ‘. But how come the ratings are always high?”

That all of this took place before 2013 shows that Jupe was way ahead of her time, yet it’s almost unimaginable that it could happen in Indonesia in 2017.

In recent years, hardline religious groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (known as the FPI) have pushed for action against anyone they feel has insulted Islam or promoted vice, despite the fact that Aceh is the only province in Indonesia to actually implement Shariah law and punishments.

Their most famous victory occurred recently, when the FPI pushed for the Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, to be tried on blasphemy charges. Several large scale marches denouncing Ahok took place in Jakarta, with the governor finally being sentenced to two years in prison, having been found guilty of insulting the Quran.

The FPI also has a reputation for going after ‘easy’ targets, particularly women and minority figures like Ahok, who is not only a Christian but also an Indonesian of Chinese origin.

Most recently, the FPI targeted Fiera Lovita, a female doctor from West Sumatra who had posted perceived ‘insulting’ comments on her Facebook page relating to the head of the FPI, Rizieq Shihab. In an ironic turn of events, Rizieq has himself been accused of breaking Indonesian pornography laws by exchanging sexually explicit content with a woman who is not his wife.

SEE ALSO: Indonesia: Anti-Ahok radical preacher in legal hot water over porn charges

That Jupe herself did not fall foul of the wrath of the FPI, who seemingly could do little but stare on helplessly as she carried on as usual, is interesting.

Is it simply that the FPI have grown bolder in recent years, or does Jupe’s handling of criticism hold the key to her ability to remain untouchable? One of the tactics so ruthlessly exploited by hardline religious groups, and the one that appears to be so effective, is their ability to shame those they feel have fallen short of their often ridiculous standards of decency.

Thanks @basukibtp ❤️ merry Christmas 🎄🌈🦋

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Jupe, however, refused to apologise or (quite rightly) acknowledge any sense of shame. In 2012, she went even further and had “Hayya ‘alal falah”, a line from the azan or the Muslim call to prayer, tattooed on her back. In 2013 she released a new song, the descriptively named Jupe Paling Suka 69 or Jupe Likes 69 The Best.

She also rejected the notion that her faith should be subject to scrutiny. In her interview with the BBC, Jupe took the fight to the religious groups, openly denouncing the idea that anyone could judge her on religious grounds,

“The people like me because I don’t have to pretend that I’m a good Muslim – when I talk about my faith it’s between me and my God.”

The fact that Jupe remained resolute in the face of criticism is an important rebuttal when hardline groups appear to be enjoying a greater sense of power, operating outside the law but to great effect. These groups rely on fear in order to prosper, but figures like Jupe show their impotence when challenged.

That Jupe died at the age of 36 of cervical cancer will remain a great tragedy, but her legacy is a lesson in the power of refusing to be cowed by those seeking to prevent freedom of speech and stifle tolerance.

As Indonesia takes one step forward and two steps back on the shaky road to democracy, we need many more like Julia Perez.

👩🏻‍💻 mamita Kurus krempeng 45 kilo ..😞 .guys lagi di foto neh mau di pajang biar paham kalo kurus kerempes ngak cihuy.. bagusan montok .. ngak mau lagi sedot2 lemak.. nyesel… 🤦🏽‍♀️ dan apalagi kanker servik stadium 4 kaki kiri membekkak karena kanker yg meradang di sekitar slankangan.. sekarang lagi berjuang untuk kempes biar kita kembali bersama keluarga..dear all profesor yg paham akan kanker servik knp kanker kaki saya ngak bisa kempes2… 👩🏻‍⚕️👨🏻‍🔬👩🏻‍🔬ini perjuangan ku perjuangan mu mana? Oh kalo ada yg nanya itu selang apa di di bawah pungung kiri saya itu epidural… jadi setiap satu jam.. saya dapet suntikan anti nyeri… secara otomatis..obat2 nya menyeseuai kan…dan kalo ada serangan.. baru dokter2 dateng kasih.. suntikan extra untuk menghilangkan rasa sakit yg luar biasa… jadi manusia selang sementara.. oh ya di foto ini lagi kesakitan… karena biasa kaki aku lagi kumat.. tapi tetep focus foto.. yg keren koko rio.. hempas kan rasa sakit ini dengan kebahagiaan.. ayo foto cekrek cekrekk… bagus kan… aduh susah mandi.. tetep mandi..😀 hrs paksa.. diri ini ke level yg extra kuat.. focuskan diri ini untuk kemenangan..bravo yuli

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I am strong because I've been weak. I am fearless because I've been afraid. I am wise because I've been foolish.

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** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent