Indonesia: Online ‘virginity auctions’ reflect wider tensions over women’s rights
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Indonesia: Online ‘virginity auctions’ reflect wider tensions over women’s rights

CONTROVERSIAL website nikahsirri.com exploded onto the Indonesian online dating scene in September 2017. The site quickly grabbed the attention of the Indonesian public, due to its promise of finding partners or “mitras” for each of its members for the purpose of “nikah siri”, as well as for promoting “virginity auctions”.

Some of the concerns stemmed from the historical way in which the concept of “nikah siri” has often been exploited in Indonesia. “Nikah siri” is a form of marriage recognised under Islamic law but is not regarded as official by the Indonesian government. The unofficial nature of such marriages has often meant women married in this way enjoy few rights. In more serious cases, “nikah siri” has allegedly led to instances of underage marriage as well as short-term marriages that were a front for prostitution.

But the issue that most scandalised the Indonesian public was undoubtedly the site’s offer to facilitate “virginity auctions”. Asian Correspondent’s review of nikahsirri.com has confirmed that the site was explicit in its encouragement of female virgins to register in exchange for financial benefit.

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Homepage of nikahsirri.com. Source: nikahsirri.com

Dr Dina Afrianty, a researcher at the Institute for Religion, Politics and Society at the Australian Catholic University and affiliated with Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Indonesia, said: “Nikahsirri.com had huge potential to lead to violence against women. The way the site portrayed ‘women’ and girls as commodities promoted the perception that those who ‘purchased’ them could do anything to these women and girls.”

The exploitative nature of nikahsirri.com was further highlighted in the way the site placed pressure on female members (known as “mitras”) to accept proposals.  Specifically, the site explicitly stated “mitras” who rejected the proposals of “clients” would run the risk of their “value” diminishing, as well as the potential for their accounts to be blocked by site administrators.

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Unsurprisingly, the site’s creator Aris Wahyudi was arrested under Indonesia’s Pornography Law and the Electronic Information and Transactions Law, and the site was blocked in Indonesia within several days of the launch (nikahsirri.com is still accessible from the US).

Nevertheless, Indonesian police have reported that around 5,300 people had registered with nikahsirri.com before the clampdown, suggesting a high level of genuine interest by Indonesians. In addition, nikahsirri.com has not been the only online platform that emerged In Indonesia in 2017 to promote relationships that critics claim marginalise women. AyoPoligami, a dating app with around 10,000 members, has also received substantial public attention due to its promotion and facilitation of polygamous marriages in Indonesia.

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Dating app Ayo Poligami that promotes polygamous marriage in Indonesia. Source: Reuters

The speed at which nikahsirri.com grew during its brief existence, and the fact that it was not alone in its online promotion of gender inequality in Indonesia, raises an important question: Are sites such as nikahsirri.com merely “one-off” pseudo-religious businesses catering to a small niche market, or are they instead a reflection of a much wider problem in Indonesian society?

This is a fair question to ask, particularly in light of the fact that the launch of nikahsirri.com occurred just weeks after an Indonesian judge stated that women should be subject to “virginity tests” prior to marriage. And he is not alone in this perspective. In 2015, Human Rights Watch drew attention to the ongoing practice of “virginity tests” for women seeking to join the Indonesian military or police force.

While academics and activists interviewed by Asian Correspondent unequivocally condemned nikahsirri.com, opinion was divided on what the site reflected about gender equality and women’s rights in Indonesia more broadly.

Dwi Rubiyanti Khalifah, Indonesian representative of human rights organisation Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN), said she viewed nikahsirri.com as a “criminal” enterprise but opined “nikah siri” is a “small phenomenon” compared to the significant improvements in women’s rights in Indonesia, particularly in health, education and legal reform.

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In contrast, Dr Rachel Rinaldo, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Asian Correspondent: “While I see the apps and websites as being more like ‘publicity stunts’, I do think they represent a certain worldview that sees women as being tradeable commodities, not fully human, and that is obsessed with male control of women’s bodies and sexuality.”

This view of the threat to women’s rights by patriarchal elements was shared Dina, who said “nikahsirri.com and AyoPoligami are reflective of a wider pattern of entrenched discrimination against women (in Indonesia), just like the ‘virginity tests’ and the introduction of the array of religiously inspired local regulations which specify certain expectations about … women’s roles and their place in public and domestic spheres.”

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Indonesian women take part in the “One Billion Rising” campaign that calls to an end to violence against women, in Jakarta, Indonesia in February 2013. Source: AP

Dina said this discrimination is partly due to the recent trend in which, “Indonesia’s domestic politics have increasingly brought religion into a more prominent role … in the socio-cultural and political life of Indonesia.”

Despite rising religious conservatism in Indonesia, the growth since 2015 in the number of Indonesian users of online dating (for the purposes of casual relationships) has outstripped growth in users of online matchmaking services (for those seeking long-term relationships or marriage) over the same period, according to data from Statista. At the same time, studies by researchers Riatu Qibthiyyah and Ariane J. Utomo point to the rise of the average age of marriage for Indonesian women between 2013 and 2016. Some factors behind this shift include better access to education and more paid employment opportunities for women, potentially suggesting greater empowerment for Indonesian women.

This data contrasts with other developments in Indonesia such as debates about “virginity tests” and the Constitutional Court’s rejection of proposal to raise the marriageable age for girls from 16 to 18 in 2015. This contradiction paints a picture in which social and religious conservatives are competing with progressive elements within Indonesian society. It could be argued that the popularity of, and the backlash against, nikahsirri.com and AyoPoligami are some of the visible manifestations of these deeper ongoing tensions.

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Blocking sites like nikahsirri.com is important and necessary when they impinge on the safety and well-being of women and girls. However, such actions alone will not address lingering patriarchal attitudes that lead to discrimination against women. Indonesia has indeed witnessed the rise of impressive women leaders, including Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti and former trade minister Mari Elka Pangestu.

Nevertheless, they alone cannot, and should not, be expected to be primarily responsible for the attainment of gender equality and better women’s rights in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. The responsibility lies instead with all Indonesian leaders – women and men, secular and religious – in ensuring that the antiquated ideas about women, which give birth to sites like nikahsirri.com, are pushed to the fringes of Indonesian society, if not completely discredited.

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