The call to prayer has just begun in mosques all over the city, and so have we. It is the fourth workshop in four days on the island of Lombok in Indonesia. In places this small island looks more Islamic than some distant Middle East stereotype. We are here to provoke discussion on sexuality, sex and the reproductive system. This builds up to talk about abortion, which in Indonesia is illegal. The workshops in East Lombok were made up of people in their late twenties and early thirties and the workshops in Mataram, the island’s capital, are people in their late teens, early twenties. Both groups consist of about eight men and four women and present the possibility to disseminate information to a much wider audience, from villages to students.
As the man selling spicy fruit salad cycles past I am thinking about a discussion from the previous workshop. Half the group was in agreement that using words such as ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ were and are too explicit for wider audiences. My thinking is not how to describe the menstruation cycle or sex organs without using such terms but what this might be saying more subtly between the lines; ‘we are not ready for gender or sexual equality’. Because if we cannot name parts of the human anatomy using medical terms then how can we implement lessons within intimate relationships and society? Regardless of this fact both groups are enthusiastic, inquisitive and open to discussion on diverse issues.
In a traditional Sasak wedding small horses with small carriages carry the bride and groom, their family, and their friends. A procession of about twenty such horses and carriages have just ridden past the workshop, on the last carriage was a loud system. The locals wanted to take us to see the wedding and we wanted to go but all resisted the temptation and carried on. A range of questions come up, from the innocent to the weird. One biology/medical student wants to know how long the penis must be docked, no movement, for fertilization. Many participants are unaware that the reproductive system is not purely for making babies but can also be used for pleasure, both on their own and with others. A particularly inquisitive fifty year old virgin wants to know the answer to the following; if a woman is gang-raped by five men and becomes pregnant, whose is the baby, the first or the last? Luckily I didn’t understand what he was saying or I might have tried to answer. More worryingly this man has some responsibility to provide contraception in Lombok and was surprised when he saw that condoms come in multiple colors when I was demonstrating how to use one. I don’t think he picked up on the fact that I was using a ribbed variation. This highlights a wider problem with Indonesia’s national family planning organization who didn’t want to provide condoms for demonstration purposes in Yogyakarta, often hailed as one of Indonesia’s most liberal cities; they were afraid it would promote promiscuous sex to young people. When they eventually gave in they sent out of date condoms to ensure they wouldn’t be used in practice.
Signs and adverts are slowly going up to celebrate Ramadan. That is why we are starting the workshops in Lombok and returning to Bali and heading east where there populations are not so predominantly Islamic. On Friday, something of a half day for many Muslims around the world we took a break from the workshop for the midday prayer. The men took me to the mosque in Pancar and I watched the hundreds of men pray, not all could fit into the mosque some were praying on the pavement, in the shade. In Mataram one of the young men wants to discuss evolutionary and creationism with me after the workshop. Both groups want to make it clear to me subtly and explicitly that there does not have to be a conflict between Islam and ideas of gender and sexual equality. This is already a certainty for me but this isn’t just a show for the foreigner, men across Indonesia have set up new initiatives in attempt to engage more men in issues surrounding gender and sexual inequality. The problem is how the information is delivered because everybody knows the story of the ‘angry villager’. Angry because despite following the instructions of the family planning advisor still got pregnant; the condom went on the thumb during intercourse as shown.
These are not simple, innocent people without a clue when it comes to these topics. When a projector is not working and we are forced to draw the female reproductive system from memory a young woman confidently and calmly gets up, takes the pen off of us and corrects the drawing. More theoretically, everyone quickly grasps the difference between sex and gender and begins to appreciate how gender is socially constructed. I don’t know if there is enough time to explore what these things mean in practical terms but the workshops must introduce a number of issues and adapt to what participants want and need. For example they appreciate that I am not a women despite having long hair and that hair style is socially constructed and not biological but what does this mean when implementing projects or doing workshops in the future, how can we work in ways that break and open up gender stereotypes. That is what we could tackle if there was time.
So it has been an interesting four days that immediately challenge what I think sexuality and reproduction means in the world. Indeed a place where a fifty year old has many misconceptions about sex and sexuality while every teenager isn’t using sexually explicit language and engaging in ‘sexting’ seems like another planet, far from what the mainstream UK media would have us believe is possible in today’s global village. I haven’t got space to introduce some of the issues surrounding abortion or even the woman leading the workshops, and the organization she started. Next time.