Women fall victim to sharia law in Aceh

Direct Action, January 25, 2013

By James Balowski, in Jakarta — Ignoring outrage and mockery at home and overseas, a town in Indonesia’s northernmost province of Aceh is pressing ahead with a by-law banning female passengers from straddling motorcycles on the grounds that doing so reveals a woman’s “curves”.

“We've seen that people’s behaviors and morals are getting far from Aceh’s Islamic cultural values. Therefore we will issue a regulation that will ban women from straddling while sitting on the passenger’s seat of motorcycles”, Lhokseumawe Mayor Suaidi Yahya told the Jakarta Globe on January 2.

Yahya said the ban was necessary because the “curves of a woman’s body” are more visible than when they are sitting sideways. “Muslim women are not allowed to show their curves, it’s against Islamic teachings.” Yahya said he hoped the by-law would discourage women from wearing pants in public, adding he has also been considering a ban on women wearing denim. “In Islam, women are not allowed to wear jeans”, he told the January 3 Jakarta Post.


Police crackdown on women wearing tight clothing in Banda Aceh

The municipal government began enforcing the regulation on January 7 — though only for civil servants — and has been distributing handouts to government offices and villages to inform local residents of the new policy, which will come into full effect after a three-month “trial period”. Notices have been posted at busy public locations and banners promoting the ban put up around the city by Islamic groups such as the Ulema Consultative Assembly, an assembly of conservative religious leaders in Aceh.

The regulation also prohibits residents travelling by any type of vehicle from hugging, embracing or holding on to each other in ways that violate Islamic law or Acehnese culture and traditional customs; forbids men and women passing through public places from wearing clothing that does not cover their aurat (in the case of women the entire body except the hands and face); and prohibits people from wearing tight clothing or other apparel that violates sharia law. Exceptions are provided for situations where it is “unavoidable or in an emergency”, but these are not specified, nor are the sanctions for violating the by-law.

Religious leaders

Aceh adopted partial sharia law in 2001 as part of a special autonomy package introduced by the government of former President Megawati Sukarnoputri. The move was widely seen as an attempt to garner support from Aceh’s religious elite to counter the rising tide of separatism.

Following Helsinki peace agreement between the armed separatist Free Aceh Movement and Jakarta in 2005, leaders of the movement initially indicated that they would repeal sharia law. But after transforming into the Aceh Party and winning a landslide victory in the 2009 elections, it has since supported the spread of such laws. All five candidates in the Aceh gubernatorial elections in March campaigned for wider enforcement of sharia law and a greater role for Islamic clerics in government affairs. The Aceh Party backed Yahya as its Lhokseumawe mayoral candidate in 2012.

Aceh’s religious leaders responded enthusiastically to the by-law. “[According to] Islamic values this is very beautiful, everything is regulated properly. If [women] want to get close to their husbands, please go ahead and do it at home or inside a room, not in public”, Lhokseumawe Ulema Consultative Assembly chairperson Tgk H. Asnawi Abdullah told the Aceh Post on January 1.

Indonesia’s top religious body also gave its blessing. “I think it is a good regulation, because women straddling motorcycles is not good”, Ma’ruf Amin, the chairperson of the Indonesian Council of Ulema was quoted as saying by the Antara state news agency on January 8. Citing a hadith, or a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad stating, “What is seen as good by Islamic people is also seen as good by God”, Amin said “Straddling is impolite for women”, adding that females should choose other means of transportation.

The Council of Ulema, which according to Transparency International Indonesia routinely accepts bribes related to the management of halal (permitted under Islam) certificates, has been ridiculed in recent years for issuing a plethora of edicts against everything from yoga and Valentine Day to women straightening their hair and premarital photographs. It has backed scores of sharia-based regional regulations around the country and has been accused of stoking religious violence against minorities. Currently it is on a crusade against a campaign by women’s activists to outlaw female circumcision, which is sanctioned by the government.

‘Lunatic proposal’

National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan) chairperson Yuniyanti Chuzaifah slammed the move. “I cannot understand the aims of such a policy. Local government should focus more on providing protection and service to women who fall victim to violence and enhancing education for women instead”, she told the Jakarta Post on January 3.

Acehnese women activists called it a “lunatic proposal”. “The way women ride a bike, how they speak and how they dress should not be the concern of the government”, said Norma Manalu from the Balai Syura Ureung Inong Aceh NGO.

The Care for Sharia Civil Society Network, a network of women’s and human rights groups, called on women to defy the by-law, saying the argument that it is designed to uphold Aceh’s traditional values flies in the face of Acehnese history, in which revered women warriors such as Cut Nyak Dien engaged in armed combat against Dutch colonial forces and female combatants known as Inong Balee fought Indonesian troops during the armed separatist conflict in 1976-2005.

The Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) said sharia law is being used to justify violent mob rule. Speaking at a press conference on January 3, Kontras Aceh provincial coordinator Destika Gilang Lestari said that there were 50 cases of sharia-linked violence last year, up from 47 in 2011. The group noted that Aceh’s abusive sharia police routinely commit violence during raids on suspected offenders, which are conducted in a discriminatory manner and mostly target women.

‘Problematic’ by-laws

Clearly embarrassed by uproar over the straddling ban, the Home Ministry said it would review more than 2500 by-laws in 2013. “We will verify all by-laws, the old ones and the new ones”, home minister Gamawan Fauzi told reporters on January 17. Fauzi said the ministry had already revoked 1878 by-laws since 2002, although he conceded that most of these concerned local levies about which businesses complained.

Two ministerial decrees recently authorised the government to strike down local ordinances that contradict national law, which have proliferated since the introduction of regional autonomy in 2002. This is seen as a face-saving gesture after the government rejected most of the key recommendations by the UN Human Rights Council in May, which released a damning periodic review urging Indonesia to revoke legislation that curbs religious freedom and discriminates against women.

As of last August, Komnas Perempuan said it had found 282 local government by-laws and policies across the country that discriminate against women, mostly in the name of religion and morality. In 2009 there were 154 by-laws that negatively affected the constitutional rights of women, which jumped to 189 in 2010 and 207 in 2011. The laws are spread across hundreds of regencies and coincide with a six-fold increase in cases of violence against women between 2007 and 2011.

Given the government’s past record, however, rights activists are sceptical, noting that none of the by-laws revoked by the ministry were those that infringe women’s rights. “Local administrators as well as those in the central government think that all regulations that govern women’s bodies and lives are essential, thus they are reluctant to do anything about them. To me this shows the government’s lack of commitment to promoting women’s rights ...”, Siti Musdah Mulia of the Indonesian Conference of Religions and Peace told the Jakarta Post on January 5.

Muhammad Isnur from the Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation criticised the ministry for failing to uphold the nation’s motto of Bhineka Tunggal Ika, or unity in diversity. “They do not dare touch controversial areas”, Isnur told the Post on January 18. “They were there to settle problematic bylaws on regional taxes and levies, but not the ones that force Muslim women to wear headscarves or schoolchildren to be able to read the Koran.”

Despite the fact that the Lhokseumawe government is already enforcing the by-law, Fauzi — who in the past has argued that such laws are in line with the authority granted under regional autonomy and would not be repealed — responded to the straddling ban by claiming that he could not do anything about it because “It was only a proposal”.

[For the latest news and information on Indonesia visit the Asia Pacific Solidarity Network website at www.asia-pacific-solidarity.net/.]