Emeritus professor in Anthropology, Australian National Univerisity
Rights in marriage have been a key issue for women’s rights activists all over the world. Age at marriage is perhaps the most significant issue, even more than the free choice of a spouse. Child marriage has been a focus for Indonesian women for nearly a century. In the colonial era, family law was left to the Islamic courts, but the women’s congresses that were held regularly from 1928 argued for secular laws that would protect women’s rights in marriage, including a ban on child marriage and the necessity of a woman’s consent. This emphasis on secular regulation as the way to protect women’s rights bore fruit in the independence period with the passage of the 1974 marriage law which, amongst other things, set a minimum age of marriage, of 16 for females (19 for males) and required that the marriage officiant ensure the woman’s consent.
As education becomes more readily available and more young women are going on to finish high school, and even tertiary education there has been a movement upwards in average age at marriage but as the work of Rumah Kitab shows us, child marriage persists. What are the strategies to address this? The session organized by Rumah KitaB at the Kongres Ulama Perempuan in April 2017 focused on the religious basis of arguments about age at marriage. The kiyai focused on textual analysis of the Qur’an and hadith to show the complexity of the definition of baliq, and the difference between a purely biological concept and a notion of aqil baligh, an idea of adult personhood. This interesting return to religious argumentation was a response to the intervention of MUI in a 2015 constitutional court court judicial review of the marriage law, in particular the regulation of age at marriage. The review had been requested by activists (including Rumah Kitab) on the basis of an argument that Indonesian law should be harmonized with 2002 Law on Child Protection , which set 18 as the age of adulthood.. The weight given to the MUI submission by the secular court is an interesting cross over between religious and secular courts, which were unified into a single system in Indonesia during the Suharto regime. Rumah KitaB were developing a textually based argument that could challenge the interpretation offered by MUI, which relied on a single text. Law reform is always an important part of social change. Legal reforms provide venues where people can argue for rights, but also are an important part of raising awareness and changing attitudes. For example, in a case of forced marriage that occurred in the community where I was doing research in the late 1970s, not long after the passage of the marriage law, a local official said to me that if the girl had come to him, he would have stopped the marriage. Talk is cheap’ and he was not put to the test but his comment shows the way in which changes on law begin to circulate and be spoken about, and so potentially impact on people’s behavior. What other ways can child marriage be challenged, and social practices changed? Marriage (and the subsequent state of parenthood) is in most communities the path out of a state of childhood to adulthood. Marriage resulted in the formation of a new conjugal unit and household. For those fortunate enough to pursue schooling, educational success and employment are also ‘building blocks’ of adulthood, and delayed age at marriage has no doubt contributed to the decline of marriages arranged by parents, as young people meet prospective spouses during education and in their work place.
But these opportunities are unevenly spread throughout the archipelago. Especially in eastern Indonesia, schools beyond SD level can be a long way from home. And employment can be even harder to find. In such situations, marriage is the only avenue available young women to achieve adulthood, independence from their families of origin, and they often willingly enter into marriage at a young age . In such contexts, educational and employment opportunities are a critical part of solutions to early marriage. The globalized world we now live in is highly sexualized. Mass media exposes us all to narratives and images that challenge customary forms of morality. I have been shocked at the ready availability, indeed the difficulty of avoiding pornographic content in Indonesia, on social and other forms of media. There is a ‘moral panic’ in Indonesia about ‘pergaulan bebas’. In some research I conducted few years ago, young people who themselves led innocent lives almost universally identified ‘pergaulan bebas’ as the biggest threat confronting Indonesia’s youth. In addition, prolonged education means many young people live away from home and outside the every day ‘control’ of parents, which can be of concern to parents and children alike. In this context, I understand that recent research by Rumah KitaB has shown that some parents see early marriage as the way to address this perceived risk. But it could also be argued that good sex education on schools and religious institutions, including empowering young people to make informed choices and evaluate risks associated with sexual activity—including health, emotional, social and economic risks— could counter this perceived threat in a more effective way than early marriage. But all of these strands are important legal reform and the empowerment of young women, in terms of their knowledge base but also the practical issues around alternative paths put of childhood. [Kathryn]