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It is now widely established that the prevalence of premarital sex in Indonesian societies, particularly in large cities, is rising. Estimates of the prevalence of premarital sex in contemporary Indonesia are as high as 42%, falsifying the claim that premarital sex does not occur in Muslim societies. A significant number of studies on youth sexuality, both qualitative and quantitative, have established the reasons for increasing rates of premarital sex, as well as the health consequences of this in Indonesia. The impact of universal education and women’s increasing participation in education, along with the Government of Indonesia’s promotion of later marriage, have significantly extended the single life of young Indonesians. When people marry later, the number of relationships they are likely to have prior to marriage can also be expected to increase. The increasing prevalence of premarital sex can in itself be seen as an issue of concern from an Islamic viewpoint, because it contradicts the focus of Islam on promoting positive conjugal sexual relationships and avoiding the negative consequences of sexual behaviour when it is not subject to social regulation. However, premarital sex that occurs without young people being equipped with the knowledge and skills to safely negotiate sexual relationships also represents an immanent threat to their health.
The health consequences of early pregnancy and childbirth are widely documented, as are the risks associated with unsafe abortion. While comprehensive statistics on the health burden of unwanted pregnancy are unavailable for Indonesia, it is estimated that between 15% and 20% of maternal deaths can be attributed to complications arising from unsafe abortion Singarimbun has further approximated that 50% of induced abortions in Indonesia are in response to premarital pregnancy, and that up to 25% of all abortions performed are among young unmarried women . Due to the illegality of providing contraceptives to unmarried people via the Indonesian Family Planning Programme, the risk of unwanted pregnancy and abortion is greatly increased for young women. Additionally, the lack of comprehensive sex education for Muslim youth increases both the risks that they will have unsafe sex and the likelihood that they will make the decision to have premarital sex without being adequately informed of the possible consequences. Attempts to promote family-based sex education in Indonesia have been largely unsuccessful as the majority of parents lack the knowledge, skills or confidence necessary to educate their children effectively. Moreover, widespread inter-generational taboos concerning communication about sex have yet to be eroded. Recent research has established the high levels of false information Indonesian youth hold about reproduction and sexuality, as well as their explicit desire to better understand their bodies, and the social and religious context of sexuality.
Ethnographic research with young Indonesian women between the ages of 16 and 24 years revealed that the majority had little or incomplete understandings of puberty, menstruation and the symptoms of common reproductive health problems that are not necessarily related to sexuality. These included conditions such as reproductive tract infections, premenstrual syndrome, endometriosis, infertility and the various forms of cancer affecting the reproductive system. The majority of young Indonesian women and men also fail to comprehend exactly how conception occurs, and do not know how to avoid pregnancy or disease, including the transmission of HIV. Many youth do not understand technical definitions of female and male virginity, nor do they understand exactly what masturbation is. All of these issues were raised regularly by young women in education workshops conducted in a regional city in Eastern Indonesia. This lack of knowledge is problematic for young people regardless of whether they have premarital sex, as this information is essential to maintaining sexual health once they are married.
Currently, comprehensive sex education is not compulsory in public schools and is often completely absent from both primary and secondary school curricula. Those schools that offer biology as a subject often provide a single lesson on reproductive physiology, generally in the second year of high school. Students’ assessments of these biology lessons reveal that limited content is conveyed and retained, and furthermore that the mode of teaching is generally book-based with no opportunity for questions or discussion. In communities that have taken up the initiative of offering sex education outside the official curriculum, annual seminars are run for secondary students, which tend to be more interactive and informative. However, such seminars are typically organized on an ad hoc basis and speakers are rarely trained as sex educators, so their effectiveness is limited by these factors. From the research available on the limited attempts at sex education in public schools, it is clear that the peer education model is by far the most successful among Indonesian youth. The success of this mode of education can be attributed to its continuity, its focus on the social and religious aspects of sexuality, and the preference of young Indonesians for discussing sex and sexual health with people of a similar age and the same gender. Islamic schools, or pesantren, are not regulated by a central agency and are thus in a similar position to public schools in so much as they are not required to provide sex education. However, in pesantren, particularly those where teachers are younger, sex education is offered under the rubric of religious education.
Progressive Islamic teachers view the provision of sex education as an integral aspect of educating young Muslims about their gendered roles and obligations within marriage, their responsibility to maintain good reproductive and sexual health, and in relation to how sexual mores interact with worship. While there are no standardized curricula from pesantren to critique, the religious education I have been fortunate to observe in Java and Lombok has been based on a sex-positive approach to sexuality (albeit within marriage) and a strong emphasis on women’s and men’s mutual rights and obligations within Islam. While progressive Islamic organizations in Indonesia (these include Fatayat Nahdlatual Ulma and Muhammadiah) are beginning to take up the responsibility of sex education through their schools and social programmes, the vast majority of young people are still not receiving the comprehensive education they require.
Another common gap in the Islamic knowledge of young Indonesians is that according to the Qur’an both partners are entitled to sexual satisfaction within marriage. Most alarmingly, many young Muslims do not understand the difference between zina and sex within marriage. They incorrectly translate the stipulations against zina to apply to conjugal sex. Consequently, they suffer from a negative attitude towards human sexuality as a whole. When acts that are haram (religiously prohibited) are misunderstood, it leads to their stigmatization. The stigmatization of sexuality leads to shame, guilt and denial, which is not how sexuality as a whole is represented in the Qur’an. For young Muslims to develop an accurate understanding of how Islam constructs and values human sexuality they require comprehensive sex education that is developed from and taught according to an Islamic perspective. traightforward definition of zina includes all acts of sexual intercourse between a woman and man that occur outside of a religiously sanctioned marriage. Zina is also popularly referred to as fornication or illicit copulation within Islamic law (shariah). The term zina appears explicitly in the Qur’an, initially in the context of a general warning against adultery that translates as: rape, incest, extramarital affairs, prostitution, premarital sex and statutory rape, and homosexual relationships. The inclusiveness of the concept of zina is a critical issue mediating the sexual relations of young Muslims in contemporary times, as although zina technically refers to sexual intercourse in the Qur’an, it is often interpreted to include nonpenetrative forms of sexual contact. Acts such as kissing, embracing, hand-holding, petting, oral sex, mutual masturbation and other non-penetrative forms of sexual interaction are not explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an. They are, however, often considered to fall under the concepts of both aurat (the private body) and zina. The concept of aurat relates to the modesty of a person’s body and the requirement that the private areas of the body are not seen by others outside sanctioned intimate relationships. Unmarried women are required to protect the private parts of their body from being seen or touched by any male who is not their guardian.
There is extensive evidence from both non-western and western settings that comprehensive sex education delays the age of sexual initiation and reduces the incidence of unplanned premarital pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections among youth (World Health Organization, 1997). This evidence fortifies the argument that sex education can assist young Muslims to abide by the religious ideal of premarital abstinence, rather than encouraging them to have premarital sex. In an era where the age of marriage is steadily increasing, there are clear benefits from education that can assist the delay of sexual initiation. The possibilities of preventing premarital sex and of delaying sexual initiation need be viewed as distinct, but can be better understood as complementary possibilities co-existing along a continuum of ideally safer and better informed choices for young Indonesians. While there are numerous examples of how sex education better equips young people to take responsibility for their reproductive health and sexual relationships, there is also extensive proof that over-simplified approaches that aim to reduce premarital sex — such as the ‘just say no’ campaigns in the United States — are not effective. Campaigns that merely instruct youth, without educating or empowering them, fail to have any impact on delaying premarital sex or improving the health status of youth who do engage in premarital sex. The Islamic imperative of protecting the umma is thus fundamentally compatible with an approach to sex education that equips young Muslims with the knowledge, skills and personal confidence to make responsible decisions. Decision-making and communication skills are widely understood as critical components in sex education and are highly compatible with an Islamic approach to communication that stresses mutual consultation. Teaching such skills ensures young people’s ability to maintain their reproductive health, to negotiate premarital relationships in a manner that allows them to choose abstinence, and to foster satisfying conjugal relationships. Issues of gender equality are central to Islamic discussions of decision-making, as are issues of exercising rationality and personal autonomy. For young Muslims who experience significant generational and cultural differences with their parents, improved communication skills are also likely to improve family relationships.
To conclude, Islam can no longer be used as a scapegoat in Indonesian society by those who claim that the Islamic preference for premarital abstinence contradicts the need for young people to receive comprehensive sex education. In fact, for young Muslims, Islam can best provide a theoretical and moral framework for the provision of such education under the umbrella of Islamic education, which applies a holistic approach to the physical, moral and spiritual development of the person. The existing educational programs of pesantren and Islamic organizations in Indonesia that provide sex education for youth according to Islamic principles demonstrate the benefits of adopting such an approach schools. The provision of comprehensive and religiously appropriate sex education for Indonesia’s Muslim youth is an obligation that should be addressed by the Indonesian Government, and ideally within public and private religious schools. Failure to meet this obligation represents a failure to acknowledge and uphold the human rights of Indonesian youth, and a lack of commitment to protecting the health of the Indonesian
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