Skip to content Skip to footer

Law makes unmarried couples illegal in Indonesia oh, and USA!

UNMARRIED COHABITATION ILLEGAL in the United States? Yes. I’m not kidding. There are many headlines about a proposed Indonesian law about who can share hotel rooms. But the fact is that the U.S. states of Michigan and Mississippi still have enforceable laws on their books prohibiting unmarried cohabitation, and in some other states, like North Carolina, the issue remains under debate. Some states had such laws until surprisingly recently. (The Florida legislature voted to repeal the state’s ban on cohabitation only in March, 2016).

So, are reporters from Indonesia flying to the United States to shout “human rights violation” at people in that country? I very much doubt it.

The story so far: Indonesia this week made initial moves to pass a law banning unmarried sharing of hotel rooms, among other things. The mainstream media is up in arms, and is calling organizations like Human Rights Watch to give them quotes to paint the step in a negative light.

But the news reports make no mention that other countries, including the US, have similar laws. Of course, some people argue that the laws in the US are on the books but have zero practical effect, since they are never used. That may not be true. In North Dakota until 2007, the courts confirmed that it was “not an unlawful discriminatory practice to refuse to rent to unmarried persons seeking to cohabit.” And some sources say the country’s Internal Revenue Service has a continuing policy of not granting exemptions for a cohabiting dependent and relatives if cohabitation is illegal in the local jurisdiction.

So the proposed Indonesian law against unmarried cohabitation that’s is being written up as outrageous attack on human rights – well, western reporters should remember that their home countries may not be as different as they think. In fact, the history of the issue is interesting.


As recently as the 1970s, couples in the United States were asked to show their marriage certificate when they checked into hotels—it was a legal requirement in some areas.

In the early 1960s and before, it would have been difficult or impossible for an unmarried couple to check into a hotel anywhere in the US, and challenging even to achieve unmarried cohabitation even in your own home. Furthermore, there was no way an unmarried couple could get a home mortgage from a bank.  

So the two countries were very similar, not so long ago. Is there a rule that says all countries have to follow the U.S. path of cultural development? I sincerely hope not.

Furthermore, there are other aspects of the coverage of the proposed Indonesian cohabitation law by the mainstream media that are problematic. Many reports say the law, which is due to be implemented in three years, specifically applies to foreigners too, but bury the fact (or fail to mention) that cases must be triggered by family members, making it unlikely that cases against westerners will ever be filed.


More troubling is that fact that almost every report I have seen is written as if this is a unique Indonesian issue, with the writers pointing the finger at the country’s Islamic religion.

But the truth is that many places have similar or identical rules at their hotels, including modern ones like Israel. Israel is not Islamic. The habit has been observed in Israel guest houses of Jewish, Muslim and Christian backgrounds.

Other countries in which couples may will be asked for their marriage certificate as they try to check in to hotels, include Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Morocco. Egypt is another place where this may be an issue. (This writer used to be a frequent traveller.)

The issue is rarely standardized, so people who travel with their spouses are used to keeping the right documents at hand (and pictures of their wedding on their phones).

In India, there’s no specific law against unmarried people sharing a hotel room – but some hotel managers do require to see marriage certificates, and this is more likely to happen in some parts of the country than others.  Certainly this writer and his wife were careful to always have a marriage certificate at hand when travelling in India.

In fact, the practice of asking for marriage certificates is common in so many countries that it is clearly seen as reasonable by a large swathe of humanity. Indonesia by itself is one of the most populous countries on earth and Pakistan is also large.

Instant condemnation is not the tolerant choice.


Another issue is that many reports imply this is some sort of dramatic new development.

In fact, all this shows is that those reporters may not know Indonesian society as well as they think. Anyone who lives in that enrapturing country or who has visited regularly, knows that this rule has existed in some form or other since time immemorial.

It’s just that some hotels turn a blind eye, while others don’t. It has long been taken very seriously indeed. Many hotels and hostels have been actively raided by police for allowing this infraction to occur.

But the law has been rather vague, and there have been efforts to codify the law in Indonesia for many years. This is simply the latest attempt of many. Others failed. This may fail too.


At the moment, all the coverage of the Indonesian I have seen takes a “west is best” standpoint, with reporters getting quotes from groups like the aforementioned Human Rights Watch, one of many extremely badly disguised organisations whose real job is to badmouth China and push US foreign policy across the planet.

A wiser response, especially for American reporters, may be to take a look at unmarried cohabitation laws in their home countries before shouting “human rights violation” at Indonesians.

The world is a complicated place and there is a need for a willingness to go the extra mile with other cultures. Tolerance is giving respect to people whose opinions are different – it doesn’t mean you agree with them. But it does mean that you prefer civil discussion to conflict. And that’s always a good thing.

Unless of course your economy depends on weapons sales, but that’s a whole different discussion.

Image at the top by Proxyclick Visitor Management System on Unsplash

Sign Up to Our Newsletter

Be the first to know the latest updates

[yikes-mailchimp form="1"]