By Aileen Thomson

Police arrested four women for “sexy dancing” during a New Year’s Eve party at the Belair Coyote Bar and Restaurant in Bandung, Indonesia. These women, along with an event organizer and a manager of the club, could be among the first charged under Indonesia’s controversial anti-pornography law, passed just over one year ago. The law’s sweeping reach goes beyond merely prohibiting the possession of pornographic materials, but also proscribes any public performance or publication which could “arouse desire.” The punishment for the dancers could be up to ten years in jail, while the organizer and manager each face fifteen years.

Although it is not clear exactly what prompted the arrests, the Belair Coyote typically features young women dancing in bikinis. Arman Achdiat, chief detective for the local police, provided few details. When asked what the women were wearing and how they were dancing, he commented, “It could be described as sexy dancing. But more importantly, they were wearing minimal clothing and performing in public, which can stir desires.”

The anti-pornography law has been under significant attack since its passage in October 2008, but enforcement up until now has been rare. Women’s groups, rights groups, artists and non-Muslim cultural groups have protested the law’s vagueness, which leaves wide room for discriminatory enforcement. Additionally, some claim that the political forces behind the law are using the public’s concerns about pornography and immorality to eliminate non-Muslim cultures in Indonesia. This attempt to eliminate minority cultural groups counters international law aimed at protecting cultural and minority rights, along with religious freedom.

For example, in West Java, where Bandung is located, concerns center around a traditional dance called jaipong, which comes from West Java’s Sundanese culture. The dance features female dancers moving their arms, hands and hips in what critics, including West Java’s governor, say is a suggestive, sensual manner. With support from the Indonesian Ulama Council, a leading Muslim clerical organization, the government of West Java has made efforts to promote the law. Hafizh Utsman, the leader of West Java’s branch of the Council, stated that “[w]e are trying to eliminate the non-Islamic parts of West Java’s traditional culture, to make it more Islamic.”

The new law has been challenged in the Constitutional Court, but so far has been upheld. A broad range of approximately 30 rights groups recently challenged the law as an unconstitutionally broad threat to artistic, religious, and cultural freedom. Proponents of the law, however, continued to articulate its moral necessity. The government’s witnesses at the trial argued that children’s exposure to explicit images is detrimental to their moral and physical development, with one government expert claiming that watching suggestive images “may result in brain damage similar to having a traffic accident.”

The anti-pornography law is just one example of a growing interconnection between Islam and politics in Indonesia, which continues to threaten the secular and diverse political tradition of the country. Moreover, widespread discrepancies among the provinces in promoting the Islamisation of Indonesia evidence an increasing divide. While Banda Aceh continues to enact stricter sharia laws, the governor of Bali declared last year that he will not enforce the anti-pornography law. Some fear that stringent enforcement of the law could further threaten the already-fraying unity of the Indonesian government, and give more fuel to secessionist provinces.