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Aceh Conflict Indonesia

A “Shariah Police” Operation in Banda Aceh

"Menerobos Razia WH," Serambi front page, 5 May 2010
"Menerobos Razia WH," Serambi front page, 5 May 2010

On Tuesday morning, 4 May 2010, the Wilayatul Hisbah (WH, the Aceh government’s “vice and virtue patrol,” the so-called shariah police force) together with the Satpol PP (the public order officer corps) staged one of their largest ever public “sweeping” operations (razia). They chose a strategic time and place to achieve perfect optics. Simpang Mesra (the “Intimate Intersection”) is a traffic circle so named with tongue firmly in cheek because when you drive around it your fellow passengers centrifugally slide up against you, hence the intimacy. This is the main thoroughfare that connects Banda Aceh proper to its adjacent campus community in Darussalam just across the river. So on weekday mornings, young nubile college students are driving to and from their classes, many of them on motorbikes. The WH set up their check-point on both lanes of the stretch of road along the river between Simpang Mesra to the north and the bridge over to Darussalam just a few hundred meters south.

The purpose of the razia is to surveil citizens, particularly women, to make sure their bodies are well-covered. If a person’s aurat (not aura, ok) is showing, it could incite uncontrollable sexual urges among men, and so women have a responsibility to keep their aurat covered. The regulations are defined in Qanun (Aceh provincial law) Number 11/2002. In places like Simpang Mesra, in broad daylight, the razia is a fairly orderly and bureaucratic exercise. If the WH decide that your aurat is showing, they have the authority to give you some religious instruction on the correct ways to keep your aurat covered. After the lecture, some other WH officials take down your name and ID number, and then you have to sign a statement that says you intend to dress appropriately in the future.

WH Checkpoint at Simpang Mesra, Banda Aceh. 4 May 2010 *
WH Checkpoint at Simpang Mesra, Banda Aceh. 4 May 2010 *

It wasn’t long before word reached us at our office that the WH were conducting a razia just across the river, so Joko took my camera and went to go check it out.* The WH officials at the checkpoint graciously gave Joko permission to take pictures, and I’ve collected them all along with some newspaper clippings in a flickr set linked here. In these photos, the WH wear dark green and the Satpol PP wear beige. WH men pull over offending women and give them religious fashion tips, while the WH women do the administrative processing of taking names and collecting signed forms. As for the Satpol PP men, they help pull people over, and the Satpol PP women just stand around wearing uniforms that don’t look all that different from the clothes worn by the women who got pulled over.

WH Fashion Tips *
WH Fashion Tips *

Serambi newspaper reported that the WH registered 194 offenders, easily one of the WH’s largest sweeping operations. All but four of the offenders were women! But looking at these pictures, it’s hard not to conclude that the WH’s definition of aurat for women is unreasonably strict, because every one of them are fully covered. Some are wearing “shapely” pants or shirts, but all are wearing jilbab veils. It’s unsafe to ride a motorbike with the kind of drapery that women are expected to wear. I’m confused about this because there is no formal regulation against women wearing jeans, except in Aceh Barat, so on what grounds can the WH justify pulling these women over? As for the four men that were pulled over, they were wearing shorts above the knees, so the double standard in defining gendered aurat exposure speaks for itself.

What matters, I’m guessing, is the dramatic figure of 194 registered offenders. It fills a quota, justifying the bureaucratic ambitions and budget allocations of the Islamic law agency (Dinas Syariat Islam). For those who support formal Islamic law without looking at the details of its implementation, 194 registered offenders caught at Simpang Mesra during the campus commute readily confirms a prevailing discourse in Aceh about how the youth threaten Aceh’s reputation of religious probity and therefore require constant surveillance and moral intervention.

Registered Offenders
Registered Offenders *

The WH technically do not have the authority to arrest; they can only advise. Few people understand the limits of the WH’s authority, and their common nickname, the “shariah police” (polisi syariat), does not help to demystify their role. What would happen if one of these women refused to stop?

The next day we found out! The accident pictured above and below was headline news not just in Serambi, but also in Kompas, Indonesia’s largest and highly regarded national daily paper. What I conclude from the limited information in both articles is that if a woman does not stop, then the WH (or, in this case, a Satpol PP officer) will put her (and themselves) in physical danger by actually trying to stop her. She crashed right into the Satpol PP dude, knocking him over and falling off her bike as well! But all we really know is that she tried to drive through the checkpoint without stopping, and that the crash did not cause any serious injuries. What a terrible pity that Serambi made no effort to get her side of the story to find out what actually happened.

"Menerobos Razia WH," Serambi front page, 5 May 2010
"Menerobos Razia WH," Serambi front page, 5 May 2010

Measured against recent events surrounding the implementation of formal Islamic law in Aceh, this operation was very tame. In January 2010 three WH officers in Langsa were arrested for gang raping a woman they “arrested” after they caught her together with her boyfriend. The very existence of laws that invest the WH with surveillance authority has unofficially encouraged civilian communities to do the same, which has frequently led to mob vigilante violence against unmarried couples “caught in the act.” A soon-to-be published book (Serambi Mekkah yang Berubah) has a chapter written by one of my research colleagues (Marzi Afriko) that recounts how religious groups in Aceh Utara increased their vigilante violence activities when there was a demonstrable decrease in funding for the WH to carry out their legally sanctioned operations. Communal vigilantism is even portrayed sympathetically in Serambi, as this very recent horrifying example (linked here) attests. But at Simpang Mesra, the WH’s razia on 4 May 2010 was procedural and banal by comparison. Maybe it was a recuperative PR exercise designed to reset deteriorating public perceptions of the WH. Another look at the pictures suggests that the women pulled aside were not particularly ashamed or upset, but rather annoyed and inconvenienced. They are late for class or some other engagement. They are texting on their phones to let others know, perhaps also to warn friends away from the razia that has delayed them. The traffic accident depicted above merely hints at the violence that men are capable of perpetrating against women (and other men) who violate their interpretation of religious laws that are still widely debated in Aceh.

* All non-newspaper images in this entry were taken by Joko Sutranto.  Thanks Joko!

Categories
Aceh Indonesia Reflexive Status Updates

Impressions From Our First Week Living in Aceh’s College Town

Jantong Hatee Rakyat Aceh
Jantong Hatee Rakyat Aceh

During our first week living in Darussalam (mid-March 2010), I tried to take a bunch of pictures to capture my first impressions.  I’ve collected them as a set titled “Jantong Hatee Rakyat Aceh” on my Flickr page.  I have been working full time in Darussalam since early September 2009, so moving there has now brought all my daily routines within walking distance, and despite several shortcomings in the area, on balance the change, so far, has been totally worth it.

Darussalam is home to Aceh’s two largest institutions of higher education: Syiah Kuala University (UNSYIAH) and the Ar-Raniry State Institute for Islamic Studies (IAIN). These schools border each other closely and the resulting mega-campus really sprawls. UNSYIAH is affectionately known as the “jantong hatee rakyat Aceh” (roughly translated as “the heart and soul of the Aceh people”) because it was the first nationally accredited institution of higher learning in Aceh, and for generations has reliably produced citizen bureaucrats for the provincial government.  I prefer to generously extend the term of endearment to all of Darussalam, not because I’ve developed some sentimental fondness for the town (hardly!), but rather because IAIN also deserves credit for producing equally competent (if not more so) intellectuals for Aceh, and also because I think UNSYIAH needs to get over itself.

Gedung Pusat Latihan Penelitian Ilmu Sosial dan Budaya - UNSYIAH
Training Center for Social and Cultural Sciences - UNSYIAH

I work at the Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies (CPCRS) at UNSYIAH’s Training Center for Social and Cultural Sciences, which is conveniently located right at the front and center of campus.  It’s a lovely old building, recently renovated and restored by the Australian government.  The building has an identical twin, the Wisma UNSYIAH, right next door:

Wisma UNSYIAH
Wisma UNSYIAH

Unfortunately not all buildings in the greater campus area of Darussalam have fared as well as the building where I am lucky enough to work.  I suspect the combined legacy of conflict and tsunami has left much of the campus buildings unattended, especially over at IAIN (though I hear the Saudi government is financing a total reconstruction of their campus in the near future…a mixed blessing at best).  If I take the long way home to my new house, usually in the late afternoon, I pass by these sad lonely buildings.  I confess to some biased editing on these pictures, but I am also trying to capture the spookiness and slight discomfort that I feel when I walk through this area:

That's me at Rise Up Cafe, probably play Fishville
That's me at Rise Up Coffeehouse, probably playing Fishville!

But to be fair, the gloomy parts of campus are at the outskirts of IAIN and UNSYIAH.  The center of campus and the town are quite lively. The quality of life in Darussalam increased exponentially when the Rise Up Coffeehouse opened two months ago. Free and fast wifi, a space for art on sunny-bright walls, magazines for reading, guitars for playing, and a friendly student-oriented staff that includes women servers, a rarity in Aceh cafes!

Rise Up Cafe in the Early Morning
Rise Up Coffeehouse in the Early Morning

There’s a tension between Darussalam’s dynamic student life on the one hand and Aceh’s new legal framework for moral policing on the other. One might expect a higher level of tolerance and nuanced critique among Aceh’s educated elite, but I have not found this to be the case, at least not in Darussalam, which most people consider more conservative than the rest of Banda Aceh across the river. One of my research associates at CPCRS once told me that when she was still in college (at IAIN), she thought Darussalam would be an ideal environment to raise a family, but she doesn’t feel that way anymore. The formal implementation of Islamic law in Aceh has empowered religious student groups to patrol the campus for immoral behavior. In her critique of media representations of Islamic law violations, Sarah Newman begins with a description of how the laws have changed the atmosphere in Darussalam. Mob vigilantism, while technically illegal, is the normative mode of “justice” meted out to unmarried couples caught in the act of romance. I agree with my colleague; as a parent I would not want to raise children under this kind of surveillance with the implicit threat of gender-based violence.

"Dilarang Keras Khalwat Disini!"
"Dilarang Keras Khalwat Disini!"

This is the setting into which we have moved, not just for work, but now to live. Our new neighbors don’t quite know what to make of the foreigner (and that guy from Jakarta who stays part time) now living in their community, and the feeling is mutual. When we were moving in, the first thing one of our neighbors told Dez was that I should buy him a motorbike because all foreigners are rich and so I must surely be able to afford one for him. The day after that, another neighbor took it upon himself to tell us that we don’t need a daytime housekeeper–who comes to cook and clean three times a week–because she is a woman coming to work in a single man’s house, and that presents an unacceptable risk. He told us we don’t need her to cook because there are plenty of rice stalls to choose from less than a block away. Never mind that I prefer vegetarian food, and that the food for sale is mostly disgusting (and that the management of my household is none of his damned business…yes I was furious!). The misplaced assumptions in these first encounters speak volumes about what they must think of us. Welcome to the neighborhood…WTF!

Lest I finish this post on a sour note, I should end my first impressions of living in Darussalam by mentioning one more thing that I love about this town and noticed right away. Most homes really enjoy having greenery, and in particular I like that there is not a lot of focus on highly manicured landscaping… the greenery just surrounds and grows in all kinds of ways. I will try to take more pictures of household greenery in the future because there are so many kinds of creatively chaotic arrangements, but for now this is all I could get:

Note: An earlier version of this post appears at http://fotofoto.livejournal.com/209225.html