Early evening May 4, 2014, a young female student was seen running across the prestigious Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), with a black eye and a bloody mouth, towards the campus’ office of the Secretariat of the Aerospace Engineering Students Association.
Sandra*, 21, a third-year student of Aeronautics and Astronautics was fleeing her boyfriend, who was chasing her on a motorbike, after being severely beaten by him at his boarding home. She recounted what happened to the security guard, who filled out a report to the university’s Work and Community’s Security, Health and Safety Unit. Accompanied by some of her seniors, she then reported the case to the nearest police station.
Ten months, another assault and an interrupted semester later, the legal case concluded. But the verdict has raised some questions over the injustice of the legal system, ITB’s slow and indelicate approach, and the general culture of tolerance in Indonesia when it comes to violence that occurs in relationships.
Sandra’s ex-boyfriend Muhamad Ahlul Firdaus, 26, was sentenced to three months imprisonment on March 11. It was half of what the prosecutor asked and a fraction of the maximum sentence of five years for severe physical assault under the Indonesian law.
Rather than an anomaly, her predicament typifies cases of dating abuses, which make up 21 percent of all abuses in personal realm in Indonesia, according to the National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan).
A violent relationship
Sandra met Firdaus, an electrical engineering student in his final year at ITB, in 2012. He was attractive, smart and athletic (a former swimmer) – a popular young man with a talent for persuasion.
She soon found out that beyond the charming surface, he was a controlling boyfriend with a mercurial temperament. Physical abuses typically ranged from “pushing, elbowing, hair pulling, feet stamping, arm-grasping”, she said. And they were usually accompanied by verbal abuses, whether directly, on the phone, or through text messages, calling her a “whore” or “trash”, and saying that nobody but him would want to be with her.
“When he’s like that, I would cry and apologize to him, but usually in a day or two he would ask for my forgiveness,” Sandra told me in one of the interviews I had with her.
“From the beginning, I could never relax around him. He had full control over me,” she said. She admitted that the turbulent relationship turned her from a cheerful and active girl (she went on an exchange program to the Netherlands in high school) into a withdrawn young woman with low self-esteem.
Firdaus is unable to comment on all these accusations. He is currently serving his jail sentence, his phone has been off and his lawyer was not contactable. But I spoke to a number of people who verified the information, and have gotten hold of some written evidence of his abusive behavior.
Screen-captured pictures of text messages sent by him from mid-2013 to early 2014 (before the first beating was reported to the police) showed abusive and controlling language filled with contempt (with the occasional apologies, as is common in abusive relationships).
On that ill-fated day in May last year, they were both in Firdaus’ rented room, Sandra working on her school assignment on his laptop that she borrowed because her own computer couldn’t download the required software.
In her detailed account recorded in court and in written statement, an argument began rather unremarkably, first about aeronautic engineering, and then over food, and then over the way she closed his laptop without switching it off first. By then he had grown irritable, and when she had finished, he refused to give her a ride home.
The verbal argument eventually turned physical with her throwing her purse at him. He grabbed her two arms and twisted them behind her back. According to her, he swiped her feet so she fell on the floor, and he sat on top of her while punching and slapping her face. As her screams got the attentions of other tenants, who were other ITB male students, he rose up to lock the door, an occasion she used to run out of the room.
She dashed for the front door, which turned out to be locked, all while asking for help from the other tenants, who had gone outside of their room to see what was happening. No body lifted a finger to help her. When somebody finally spoke up, it was to tell her to leave through the basement door, which was unlocked.
This kept happening: one after another, people she knew were refusing to help her, fearing they would anger Firdaus, who was running after her. When she managed to leave the house, neighbors from the surrounding area had gathered to see what happened. They looked set to help, until he told them he was defending himself from her (ironically while chasing her). The neighbors suggested the couple to settle their fight with the neighborhood head. This frightened Sandra, who began to make a run for it again, until she finally reached her campus.
Firdaus was arrested by the police that night, but was released the next day on bail. In the trial he claimed that he was merely defending himself from Sandra who tried to beat and bite him. He also painted her as someone with violent and unstable emotions.
I met Sandra at a café on a quiet street in Bandung, the capital of West Java. A poise young woman, she has a slender, almost frail-looking frame, and she speaks articulately, though softly. There were no more bruises or cuts to show except for one small scar on her wrist from the second assault in November.
She is taking a semester off this year, because she had had to miss a lot of classes due to the trial. But it isn’t just that – she also doesn’t feel emotionally fit to attend classes. Last semester, her grade point average dropped significantly, as she flunked one class and had to miss many days of school because she was sick.
But the worst part was that she felt she had lost some friends. They shirked from her to try to stay neutral. Behind this, she found out, were rumors circulating about her being a “psycho”, like the girl in the movie Gone Girl who fakes her own death to frame her husband.
“Some of my friends became distant, maybe they were afraid of Daus,” she said, calling him by his nickname.
For a couple of months after the first incident, the police never followed up on her report.
“Police told me there were no witnesses, although there were a lot of people inside and outside of the boarding house who saw me with a bloody face and screaming hysterically. Police said, ‘If you have a witness, then bring them here.’”
In August, she reported the case to Komnas Perempuan, which issued a letter to the police, who then agreed to “look together for witnesses.” They went to the site of the crime, and found that some of the witnesses had moved, and others refused to testify (she found out later they had been told by Firdaus not to interfere in the case, or he would sue them if he was proven innocent). But she did find some who would talk.
By this time, Firdaus had gone on a charm offensive, sending a barrage of flattering messages to her, saying elaborately how much he missed her, even talking about marrying her. Sometimes he made unannounced visits, throwing rocks at her windows to get her attention. The messages and missed calls, screen-capped pictures of which have been made available to me, showed that he was trying to win her heart so she would drop the case. At some point it began to work, and Sandra admitted she was slightly persuaded.
Then one day in November, as the case was stalling and her university had yet to respond to her complaints, she agreed to meet with him.
“He asked me to go out and by this time, I was back to texting with him. And I was already thinking that I might just withdraw my report, because I was tired. My name was being smeared on campus and the case was not going anywhere.“
They met for dinner, during which he asked her again to withdraw the report. She told him she would ask her parents first, and then she confronted him about rumors about her, presumably spread by him. They were getting into an argument again, but he asked her to come with him to his new rented home (he was kicked out of the first one) to watch a movie and talk further about this.
What I’m about to describe next is Sandra’s account of the incident that has not been confirmed by Firdaus.
After watching a movie at his place, her gastritis acted up and she vomited. She wanted to go home, but he told her to stay and went to fetch medicines from the store. It was 11 p.m. and she spent the night there. His sole housemate, a guy named Kris, was there that night.
The next day she woke up and wanted to go home, but he told her he would take her later when he was going to campus. In the afternoon, this happened again: she wanted to leave, but was too scared of him, who kept telling her to stay a bit more, so she spent the next few hours at the house, where they watched another movie.
It was about 5 p.m. when he told her he wanted to talk about the case, and told her to withdraw her report. They began to argue, which led him to strangle her. He pulled on her hair, until she apologized. The assault continued with him pushing her against a mirror, cracking it.
“I was crying and was really scared; he dragged me by my hair out of his room. At the living room, his housemate Kris was watching TV, he told him, ‘Get the neighbors here, so we can get rid of Sandra.'”
His roommate rose and calmly and went outside to summons the landlord, she said. When she told him she would report to the police, he said, “If I pull your hair like this, would you have visual evidence to report me?”
He told his landlord that she had been shamelessly pursuing him, coming over and wanting to spend the night.
“I was confused and I told the landlord I had been there since the night before, but Daus said he could check with Kris. I panicked and blurted out that I had been raped. It was a reflex.”
“His landlord yelled at me, ‘How can you be so shameless, you are a woman!’” she recounted him telling her.
Frightened, she ran back inside the house to hide. While the landlord went to fetch the neighborhood head to try to mediate the argument, the pulling and slamming began again, Sandra said. At one point, she saw a knife and a large carving fork used for barbecue at his pantry. She took the fork and said she would kill herself with it. He laughed and told her she could die somewhere else. Then he snatched the fork from her and slammed her until she fell facing the door that was open.
At this time a man passed by the house and she asked for his help, but he took a look at her and continued walking. It was during this lull, however, that he paused from assaulting her and she managed to crawl outside, crying and begging for help. Outside, the landlord, a police, the neighborhood head, and Kris, the housemate, had gathered.
After calling her mother and her best friend, she was asked to go inside to resolve the problem. But when they realized she was feeling pain and had some bruises from being slammed, they took her to the police to file a report.
Two days later, Firdaus reported her to the police for allegedly threatening to endanger his life with a barbecue fork.
A questionable legal proceeding
In mid-February this year the Bandung chapter of the anti-rape and sexual violence movement One Billion Rising (OBR) had just held a discussion on sexual violence at the auditorium of the Asia-Africa Conference building, when a young girl, a friend of Sandra's cousin, approached its volunteers to tell them about the assault case.
They followed up with a meeting with Sandra and accompanied her to her university’s disciplinary committee hearing. Around this time, after months and four letters to the university asking them to impose a sanction on Firdaus, the 10-member disciplinary committee had finally decided to act on it.
Attended also by heads of departments of the two students and their supervising professors, the first hearing turned into a mess when Sandra became hysterical upon finding out she was being seated next to Firdaus. The hearing was postponed and she was never required to attend any of the subsequent hearings again.
Accompanying her during this hearing and the trial was OBR volunteer Ressa Ria Lestari, or Icha: “We came into the case a little late, so we only managed to attend the last four court hearings.”
The first one didn’t end well either, said the 24-year old.
“We had been waiting outside the courtroom since 11 a.m. and when we were finally called in at 1:30 p.m., the trial was over. Daus’ friends were there, and they were laughing at Sandra. She left crying hysterically,” she recalled.
In that hearing, the district prosecutor Dina Anne demanded six months imprisonment for Firdaus.
The light sentence has raised some questions over the prosecutor’s integrity. In fact Sandra claimed she was persuaded by the prosecutor to drop the case out of “compassion” for Firdaus. Sandra's family reported her to her superior. Though no sanction seemed to be imposed on the prosecutor, she made known to Sandra and her family later that she did not like them reporting on her, and they would suffer consequences.
When contacted several times, Dina refused to comment.
In fact after the charges were read, Icha and Sandra's sister went to meet her to ask why she only demanded six months for Firdaus.
“The prosecutor told us, ‘I wanted to help you initially, but because of how it’s turned out, I’m having second thoughts. If you had problems with me, you should’ve told me. I regret ever putting Firdaus in jail. He seems like a nice kid, and his supervising professor has guaranteed that he is a good student. I don’t want to ruin someone’s future,’” Icha recounted the meeting.
Before she talked, the prosecutor asked to see their phones to make sure they weren’t recording the conversation, she said.
Firdaus has passed his final assignment, which makes him eligible to graduate. This was a source of discontentment to Sandra and her family. They had previously written letters to the university to ask explanations and to protest why nothing had been done to follow up the report from the first case in May 2014.
Nanang Puspito, head of the Committee to Uphold the Academic and Students’ Norms or the disciplinary committee said ITB finally suspended Firdaus for a semester as his sanction.
“A disciplinary hearing is not the court of justice,” Nanang, a professor in Geophysics Engineering, told me.
“We have no judges, police or prosecutors. Our paradigm is education, so our main goal is to find the truth and impose a sanction in the context of education. That’s why we tend to avoid punishments that are detrimental to someone’s future. It’s not punishing for the sake of punishing,”
He defended the university’s approach to the case, and said it had not moved earlier because there was already a legal case ongoing.
“Once the case entered the legal realm, we didn’t want to interfere. We received letters from lawyers from both sides, but we didn’t want to enter into a fight between lawyers. However, after Sandra wrote us a letter in January 2015, we decided to hear the case.”
Nanang has held the post since 2005, and he had presided over many “disputes” between dating students, though they did not involve physical assaults.
“We always handle this kind of disputes internally. We regret that this one went to court,” he added.
Sandra and her family chose not to appeal against Firdaus’ sentence, although it meant he only had another month in jail, as he had already been detained for two months at the time of the verdict. They are more concerned about preparing for the second case, with the help of OBR and other organizations like Yayasan Sidikara, a foundation that provides support to women who are victims of domestic violence.
During the trial the prosecutor only used the police reports of visual evidence, and never used any evidence such as text messages, much less brought witnesses to testify against Firdaus (not even the police who took down Sandra’s report).
As with the first case, the second case has not progressed, however. Meanwhile, Sandra is also getting nervous about being called a suspect for the case filed by Firdaus against her.
Titi Pudji, founder of Yayasan Sidikara, said victims of abuses like Sandra and their families need all the support they can get while going through the legal process.
“The court system often becomes the second form of violence for victims of domestic or dating violence in Indonesia, because they often face jeers and mockeries by supporters of the accused, and endure stigmatization implied during the course of trial,” she said.
Cultural factor is a huge challenge in stopping violence against women in dating.
“It’s even more challenging than domestic violence, because for our society, a young woman coming over to her boyfriend’s place is seen as asking for trouble. They would say, ‘No wonder she gets beaten up or raped.’”
“ITB, just like our culture, is still very patriarchal. All this sprung from misinterpreted religious values,” she added.
OBR volunteer Icha said dating violence cases rarely go to court and most victims never report them, because a lot of the time they involve pre-marital sex, which is still frowned upon by society.
“Sex is being used to ‘tie down’ a girl to her boyfriend, making her endure being abused, because she feels that having lost her virginity makes her less valuable,” she said.
These days Sandra sees a counselor and a hypnotherapist, and takes medications to recover from her traumas. She still fears being with guys, and when someone raises her or his voice, she easily goes into a panic state.
“I take meds so I won’t try to kill myself and so I can focus and stay calm,” she said.
She is not happy about Firdaus’ academic sanction, because she said it wouldn’t affect him much, as he had already passed his final assignment and had no more classes to take.
“Meanwhile, I have had to take a semester off because of this case. It isn’t fair,” she said.
But there is a lesson to learn from this.
“Never feel that you’re weak because you’re a woman. If something bad like this happened to you, don’t ever feel that it’s your fault. If only I did that, I might’ve been living a happy life right now.”
*Name has been altered for safety reason
If you or someone you know are victim of dating violence, please contact Yayasan Pulih or LBH Apik.
Read about the legislations on sexual violence here.