(Washington, DC) – United States President Barack Obama and Indonesian President Joko Widodo should address increasing threats to women’s rights and religious freedom in Indonesia when they meet in Washington, DC, on October 26, 2015, Human Rights Watch said today. Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi, will visit the US from October 25 to 28.

Joko "Jokowi" Widodo gestures during a rally in Proklamasi Monument Park in Jakarta on July 9, 2014.

© 2014 Reuters

“Indonesia is damaging its reputation as a tolerant Muslim society by weakening protections for women and religious minorities,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. “Rights-respecting governments don’t require women to take bogus virginity tests to become military officers or tolerate attacks on minority houses of worship.”

Human Rights Watch has documented that Indonesia’s national police and armed forces require female applicants to take degrading and unscientific “virginity tests.” An increasing number of local governments have enacted discriminatory laws in recent years restricting women’s rights –including regulating how women sit on motorcycles and the kind of skirts and headscarves they can wear. Indonesian law contains other discriminatory regulations targeting women and girls, including allowing female genital mutilation and child marriage.

Indonesia’s religious minorities, including Shia, Sufi, and Ahmadiya Muslims; Christians; Bahai; secularists; and followers of indigenous faiths, face threats and violence from Islamist militant groups. Earlier in October, Muslim vigilantes forced the closure of 10 Christian churches in Singkil, in southern Aceh province, claiming they did not have permits from the majority Muslim community.

US: Push for Religious Freedom in Indonesia

Indonesia’s official Commission on Violence against Women reported that Indonesia had a total of 279 discriminatory local regulations in 2014. One-fifth of Indonesia’s 514 regencies and cities currently have rules requiring women, especially female students and civil servants, to wear the hijab. The hijab is also imposed on Christian girls in some areas, such as West Sumatra.

In Aceh, in northern Sumatra, Sharia (Islamic law) bylaws create discriminatory offenses that do not exist in the Indonesian criminal code, criminalizing alcohol drinking, consensual same-sex sexual acts, homosexuality, and all sexual relations outside of marriage. These bylaws permit, as punishment, up to 100 lashes by whip and up to 100 months in prison.

“President Jokowi isn’t responsible for the flurry of regulations harming women’s rights, but he is now best positioned to do something about it,” Sifton said. “President Obama should stress the importance of tackling Indonesia’s restrictions and discrimination against women and girls before it gets worse.”

While attacks on religious minorities have decreased since Jokowi became president in October 2014, hundreds of churches that closed down or were burned under the previous administration remain sealed. These include two churches outside Jakarta that the Supreme Court ordered to be built, but local governments ignored the order. Hundreds of Ahmadi and Shia remain displaced from their respective villages in Lombok and Madura islands after violence in 2006 and 2012, respectively.

Many Indonesians want to know how and why hundreds of thousands were killed 50 years ago, including what role the US played in these mass killings. President Obama can and should declassify documents that would shed light on this dark chapter.

John Sifton

Asia advocacy director

A key cause of religious intolerance is a 2006 regulation replacing the principle of “religious freedom” with “religious harmony." The 2006 regulation established the principle of “majority” and “minority” roles in religious affairs, specifying that Indonesia’s Sunni majority should “protect” minorities, while minorities should “respect” the majority. This has been interpreted to mean that religious minorities should ask for permission to undertake activities such as building new mosques or churches. It also set up a so-called “religious harmony forum” in all 514 regencies and cities, as well as 34 provinces. The regulation contradicts the Indonesian constitution, which upholds religious freedom and equal rights, as well as the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which Indonesia ratified in September 2005.

“Obama should urge Jokowi to withdraw the so-called ‘religious harmony’ regulation, which has been used to repress religious minorities, and ensure that religious freedom and minority rights are upheld,” Sifton said.

Human rights problems in the western Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua should also be on the agenda. Indonesian security forces continued to confront a low-level pro-independence insurgency movement led by the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, OPM), as well as civil protests. Human rights abuses against native Papuans, including beating, shooting, and sexual violence, remain a chronic problem. In May, Jokowi released five Papuan political prisoners and took steps to ease restrictions on access by foreign journalists. He also promised to release 90 other political prisoners and investigate the December 2014 killing of five Papuan teenagers in Enarotali that has been resisted by the Indonesian police and military.

Obama, whose stepfather was an Indonesian soldier stationed in Papua in the late 1960s, is personally familiar with Papua’s history and has raised human rights issues there in meetings with Indonesia’s previous president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Human Rights Watch called on the Obama administration to declassify documents related to mass killings in Indonesia in 1965-66 as a key step toward obtaining justice for those crimes. As part of a purge of alleged communists, at least an estimated 500,000 people were killed. Public discussion about the killings, a taboo topic in Indonesia over the last 50 years, has increased recently, a process substantially aided since 2012 by release of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary films, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence.

“Many Indonesians want to know how and why hundreds of thousands were killed 50 years ago, including what role the US played in these mass killings,” said Sifton. “President Obama can and should declassify documents that would shed light on this dark chapter.”