To Its Very Core

Dismantling power relation and a pro-victim approach in responding to sexual violence within – or done by – religious communities

by: Amadeo Devin Udampoh

On September 26, 2022, the Gender Working Group (POKJA Gender) of the Netherlands Indonesia Consortium on Muslim-Christian Relations (NICMCR) conducted a webinar on “Sexual Violence and Religious Communities”. The webinar started via Zoom at 10:00 CET/15:00 WIB with attendants from various institutions in the Netherlands and Indonesia. The webinar features two speakers, one from Indonesia and the other one from the Netherlands. The combination of speakers from the two countries is important for, as Prof. Wijsen reiterated in his opening remarks, the NICMCR seeks to bring together Indonesian and Dutch perspectives based on the shared common history of the two countries.

Dr. Anke Bisschops

This webinar, as hinted by its theme, was aimed at discussing sexual violence and religious communities, as it happened not only as a phenomenon unfamiliar to religious communities but something whose dealings entailed the participation of religious communities. Some cases of sexual violence even took part in the premises of religious communities or involved religious figures. The moderator of this webinar, Rev. Elina Welmina Otu, also highlighted this irony in her introductory remarks of the content and speakers of this webinar. The speaker from the Netherlands was Dr. Anke Bisschops who was a psychotherapist and pastoral psychologist currently working at Tilburg University, while the speaker from Indonesia was Prof. Nina Nurmilla of the State Islamic University of Sunan Gunung Jati, Bandung. The first speaker would be presenting about sexual abuse and violence within the Dutch religious communities, with special reference to the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, the later speaker would be speaking about sexual violence in the context of Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia.

Dr. Anke Bisschops started by referring to the 1990s as a year of a paradigmatic turning point in making sense of the meaning of relationships. There was a growing awareness in the Wests about the real issue of power imbalances imbued in many relationships. These power imbalances are the result of patron-client relations, and a product of relationships where one party is fully and dependent on the other one, or where one party is deemed more spiritual, noble, or authoritative than the other one. This imbalanced relational mode is fertile ground for sexual abuse and violence. Dr. Anke also noted that sexual abuse and sexual violence are two different things. Violence can sometimes be vividly sensed but abuse often comes in a subtle manner.

Dr. Anke mentioned a case whereby Catholic priests were having abusive sexual relations with a few women in the Netherlands. As time went by, the women grew in awareness of the wrongs in the relationship and decided to report the case. They were met by difficulty especially in making people believe their true story. The difficulty arose because the perpetrators were people of power and authority. In the Catholic Church, priests were regarded as God’s representatives that it was unimaginable to portray a priest committing a crime, including sexual abuse. Dissatisfied by the church’s response, the women brought their experience to the light by going to the media. Finally, punitive steps were taken, and justice was served for the women.

Rev. Elina Welmina Otu

In response to cases like these, the Roman Catholic Church instituted a foundation called Help and Justice. It was established to study cases of sexual abuse and violence. Guiding questions for the foundation were; how sexual violence could happen? What are the contributing situations that factor in sexual abuse? etc. The study undertaken by this foundation pointed to a fundamental factor that perpetuates sexual abuse and violence; abuse of power. Power domination still serves as the major factor that makes it possible for abuse to happen.

Help and Justice also studies the impact of sexual violence. Their findings show that sexual violence and sexual abuse impinge immense trauma on the victims. These experiences also ruin their capabilities in believing in God and in making sense of reality in general. Moreover, victims of sexual abuse are questioned of their sanity when accusing those in power of sexually abusing or violating them. This is tied to the fact that the perpetrators are seated in powerful positions.

In her remarks, Dr. Bisschops also storied the experience of several victims of sexual abuse who found a way to gather strength to fight the perpetrator. It is already apparent that perpetrators often get away with their deeds because of the power they hold against their victims. In the case that Dr. Bisschops alluded to, these women neutralized the power of the perpetrator by coming together in demand of justice. This heroic act put pressure on law enforcement and eventually led up to an investigation which brought the perpetrator to justice.

Dr. Bisschops also mentioned some important alterations in the Dutch legal system concerning to the handling of sexual violence. These alterations were motivated by the reality that victims usually did not report immediately after experiencing the horror of sexual violence. It would take a long time – even years – for a case to be made of their experience. In light of this, the Netherlands revised the article to the extent that victims could report their cases at the maximum ten years after they experienced sexual violence. Dr. Anke Bisschops also aspired toward a more victim/survivor-oriented legal process instead of a merely punitive-oriented one.

The second speaker was Prof. Nina Nurmilla. She began her presentation by sharing a verse from the Quran (QS. An-Nur: 33) to show that Islam was the antithesis of sexual violence. The verse underlines Islam’s prohibition of sexual abuse in marital relationships. This prohibition is important to note because we realize that sexual violence can also occur in marriages.

Prof. Nurmilla also raised the case of sexual violence committed by the director of an Islamic boarding school by the name of Herry Wirawan. Herry raped 13 underaged students where eight of them were pregnant and had given birth to nine babies. Most of the victims came from poor families. Their economic condition forced them to rely heavily on the “generosity” of Wirawan and the boarding school he was chairing. Consequently, this imbalanced relationship fostered a power-play which became the causational root of sexual violence.

Prof. Nina Nurmilla

Wirjawan was eventually put on trial and the court sentenced him to death. However, his execution had not been carried out. When the legal proceedings were underway, irrelevant news report covered Wirjawan’s life in prison, depicting him as a pious man, keeping up with his daily prayers and observing his religion diligently while behind bars. This sort of news coverage certainly does not do justice to his victims.

Prof. Nurmilla also mentioned another case whereby the son of a director of an Islamic boarding school raped the school’s female students. It took a long time for the victims’ stories to see the light of day. The urge to safeguard the institution’s reputation, and to spare it the dishonour and shame factored in the delay in exposing the case.

The Indonesian laws prohibit sexual violence and sexual abuse. Our laws have been redefined through the enactment of the Bill on the Eradication of Sexual Violence, which has been promulgated and made effective by the government. This provides a solid ground for acting on sexual violence in the country.

Prof. Nurmilla mentioned three causes of sexual violence which are (1) patriarchal ideology, (2) unequal power relation, and (3) misuse and abuse of religion. She also set forth her recommendations for the greater enforcement of the bill against sexual violence. In her views, sexual violence can be erased by uprooting patriarchy through gender-justice trainings and workshops. She also stressed the importance of the role of the campuses by providing a Centre or a hotline to which students can report sexual violence if they experience – or knowing and witnessing – one. A comprehensive handling mechanism which includes trauma healing dimension need to be performed for the victims. Lastly, perpetrators must be brought to justice.

The Q&A went well, and many questions were collected. A participant asked about options of help centres which can be accessed by victims of sexual violence in Indonesia. Prof. Nurmilla mentioned Komnas Perempuan, Puan Amal Hayati, Forum Pengadalayanan, etc. She also underlined the importance of “pendampingan” or supervision for the victims.

A response to Dr. Anke Bisschops focused on a causational root of sexual violence in religious communities; imbalance of power, stories of the victim being disbelieved, etc. Dr. Bisschops responded by again reiterating the importance of accumulating strength among the victims by coming together to face the perpetrator.