Baiq Nuril Maknun: The face of Indonesia's #MeToo movement

The case of a woman who was sent to jail after exposing her boss' lewd advances has highlighted how gender inequality is still rampant in Indonesia's legal system, writes Dr Eva Nisa. 

OPINION: The story of Baiq Nuril Maknun, a 41-year-old mother of three from West Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia, has been a hotly debated topic and generated wide interest from local, national and international media. In 2012, when working as a part-time bookkeeper at a state high school in Mataram, Nuril was the victim of verbal sexual harassment from the principal of the school. Nuril received lewd phone calls from him and decided to record the calls to protect herself if something bad happened. Two years later, the recorded phone calls were distributed by a friend and, unfortunately, the principal took the case to court in 2015. Nuril was charged under Indonesia’s Information and Electronic Transactions Law.

Before and during the trial, from March 27 to May 30, 2017, Nuril was held behind bars. On July 26, she won the case at the district level and was found not guilty of breaching the law. However, prosecutors brought the case to the Supreme Court and on September 26, 2018, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s verdict and sentenced Nuril to six months in jail and a Rp 500 million fine (NZD 55,000).

Baiq Nuril Maknun

Sexual harassment victim Baiq Nuril Maknun received a six-month jail sentence. 

The verdict received heavy criticism from the public, highlighting that Nuril was a victim of verbal sexual harassment. She was supported locally and nationally by diverse parties. A crowdfunding campaign was created to help Nuril paid her fines. Protesters declared their frustration with the verdict, emphasising diverse aspects. Women’s activists, for example, argued that Nuril’s case was the clear manifestation of the criminalisation of sexual harassment victims. Komnas Perempuan (National Commission on Violence Against Women) said Nuril’s case reflected the urgency to issue a controversial anti-sexual violence bill which has been opposed by conservative groups in Indonesia. In the end, Nuril was officially freed from the verdict when President Joko Widodo granted her amnesty in July. 

Muslim women and #MeToo

Nuril’s case reminds us of the cross-border waves resulting from the #MeToo movement against sexual assault and harassment. The movement was widely popularised by Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano in October 2017, when she published a tweet on sexual abuse allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein. Through Alyssa Milano’s tweet, the hashtag went viral and has become a global phenomenon. The role of social media is particularly vital in this movement which has further been translated through online activism, such as public sharing of stories about sexual violence and harassment, as well as through offline campaigns and rallies.

Battling for justice, Nuril has been described as the icon of Indonesia’s #MeToo movement. Waiting for women, including Muslim women like Nuril, to speak out about sexual harassment has been a long journey but is now a growing phenomenon. As a global phenomenon, it is important not to tokenise Muslim women in this context because they are Muslim.

The #MeToo movement has been criticised by some feminists, particularly due to its exclusivity and accessibility. The movement had been predominantly aligned with certain segments of women, especially middle or upper-class white women. As the global #MeToo movement has flourished, however, Muslim-specific versions of the #MeToo movement, such as #MosqueMeToo, were born. This movement was introduced by feminist author Mona Eltahawy in February 2018. Eltahawy encourages Muslim women to voice their concerns regarding sexual assault and to share their experiences of being sexually harassed even within sacred places. While Eltahawy’s movement emphasises that sexual harassment and assault can occur even in the most sacred of spaces, Nuril’s experience has added to the long list of sexual abuse experienced in academic learning environments.

Failure in Nuril's case

Nuril’s #MeToo movement is complicated. She was a victim of verbal sexual harassment by a man with power. Her legal trial, however, demonstrates that she also suffered from layers of discrimination and unjust rulings. The transnational #MeToo movement focuses mostly on the interplay between sexual harassment and patriarchal power imbalances within different localities across the globe. Nuril, unfortunately, had to face not only patriarchal power imbalances but also the lack of gender-just perspectives by law enforcement personnel.

In July 2017, Indonesia's Supreme Court issued a regulation which aims to provide fair trials for female victims, defendants, and witnesses. Article 3 of the guidelines for adjudicating cases on women stipulates that judges must “identify situations of unequal treatment which result in discrimination against women”. Article 11 stipulates that in the context whereby the Supreme Court needs to examine a judicial review related to women facing the law, judges should consider additional aspects such as human rights principles, power relations, gender stereotypes, and comprehensive gender analysis. After these guidelines were issued, a special series of training for judges to handle women’s cases during trials was conducted.

The controversial verdict issued by Nuril’s judges, including the female judge chairing the judgement panel, was therefore ironic. The panel of judges has been heavily criticised for lacking gender-just perspectives and failing to protect female victims of sexual assault. Nuril’s case invites us to think about how the #MeToo movement has been localised and contextualised in Indonesia by countless actors facing layers of intricate power imbalances and confronting various forms of gendered vulnerability.

 - Asia Media Centre