Categories
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

Should Aceh’s Religious Leaders Demand an Apology from Serambi Too?

Today on facebook Aceh’s activist community had a good laugh sharing a picture of an advertisement that appeared on page 3 in today’s Serambi, Aceh’s oldest and most widely read provincial newspaper. The ad promotes a “late nite party” event tomorrow night (17 Feb 2010) at a karaoke and disco club in Medan, Sumatra’s largest city in the neighboring province of Sumatra Utara (North Sumatra). It shows a suggestive “come hither” close-up of scandal-monger artis Sarah Azhari, the headline entertainment at this party; the ad also promises supporting entertainment from go-go dancers and two female DJs (very trendy these days!).

Advertisement in Serambi, 16 Feb 2010, p.3
Advertisement in Serambi, 16 Feb 2010, p.3

The event sponsors evidently think it was a wise investment to place this ad in Serambi. In other words, they expect more than a few men of means in Aceh, with only one day’s notice, will drop everything and make the trip to Medan to attend this seductive bacchanal. Just for reference, a bus trip to Medan from Banda Aceh takes 12 hours, and from Langsa (Aceh’s closest metropolitan area from Medan) at least three hours. A flight from Banda takes a half hour but costs more, and perhaps already overbooked.

My Acehnese friends were chuckling today on facebook because the ad reveals part of the hypocrisy behind Aceh’s implementation of Islamic shariah law. How reassuring it must be to know that just across the border Medan is always happy to oblige Aceh’s unmet needs for those who can afford it. My friends conclude, correctly I believe, that shariah law in practice only applies to Aceh’s poor.

The layers of hypocrisy in Aceh’s legislated piety are easy to unravel, but I want to build upon today’s amusing example in Serambi with another, because just above the advertisement on the very same page of today’s newspaper was an article about the Banda Aceh Ulama’s Consultative Assembly’s [Majelis Permusyawaratan Ulama Kota Banda Aceh, or MPU] reaction to Aceh’s first transsexual beauty pageant that was held last Saturday night. The MPU demands that the Miss Transsexual Aceh 2010 pageant organizing committee submit a public apology in print and online to the people of Aceh for deceiving the MPU when they first sought permission to hold the event. The MPU were deceived, they claim, because the organizing committee claimed the pageant was a fundraising event for social and cultural awareness of Aceh. Never mind that technically a beauty pageant is not inherently at odds with the organizer’s stated goals to raise awareness of Aceh’s society and culture. In addition to an apology, the MPU expects that the committee will not send the pageant winner (Miss Aceh Utara! Yay!) to the national level pageant because it pollutes Aceh’s image in the eyes of all Indonesians. If there is no apology, the MPU threatens to convene a plenary session and take “further action,” whatever that means.

Contestants looking their finest in traditional dresses during the Social Cultural Transvestite Queen beauty pageant in Banda Aceh over the weekend. The Indonesian Ulema Council has said it would tolerate such contests as a form of entertainment, but would step in at the first sign of anything pornographic, especially contestants revealing too much skin. (AP Photo)
Transsexual Pageant All Right in Aceh as Long as Clothes Stay On: MUI

I should note here that the English language press in Indonesia and abroad has done an excellent job covering this courageous event in Aceh. In particular, I give credit to The Jakarta Globe for their coverage; each image on the left, in chronological order, links to the Globe’s three articles on this event. The  big ironic point documented in these articles is that the MPU originally gave their permission to hold this event, and it sure seems like they knew beforehand that it was a beauty pageant! But they seem to have backpedaled after it got so much press coverage, which they specifically complain about in the Serambi article.

Three transsexual contestants show off their outfits.
Under the Shadow of Shariah Law, Transsexuals Take to the Stage in Aceh in Rare Beauty Contest

Unlike the Jakarta Globe articles linked to the pageant pictures on the left, today’s Serambi article makes no effort to capture both sides of the story. There are no quotes from the pageant contestants nor from the pageant organizers, who all had a lot to say about Aceh’s society and culture, the position and challenges of transsexuals there, and their thoughts as Acehnese Muslims about the formal implementation of shariah law. Instead, Serambi‘s idea of cross-checking the MPU’s hastily convened press conference was to see what the Aceh Islamic Student Union (KAMMI) thought about the controversy. In case you were wondering, KAMMI supports the MPU’s official outrage at their own embarrassing press coverage.

Aceh Shariah Leaders Blast Transsexual Beauty Pageant
Aceh Shariah Leaders Blast Transsexual Beauty Pageant

Ah Serambi! We can always count on you to act as the one-sided mouthpiece for Islamic orthodoxy in Aceh. We know that in the past you have refused to publish the op-ed pieces of young Acehnese intellectuals who oppose shariah legislation in Aceh. We also know that your coverage of shariah law violations of the sexual variety implicitly endorses vigilante mob violence. None of this surprises us. But what about today’s advertisement promising “elegant love” tomorrow night in Medan featuring go-go dancers and sexy Sarah Azhari? Even as Serambi writes articles condemning PG-13 level entertainment in Banda Aceh previously endorsed by the MPU, on the same page they allow promotion of R-rated (with hopeful expectations of X-rated, no doubt) entertainment across the provincial border. I wonder what the MPU, HUDA, Dinas Shariah, WH, KAMMI and other religious institutions that support shariah law in Aceh have to say about that?  I wonder if the MPU, HUDA, Dinas Shariah, WH, or KAMMI will convene a press conference and demand that Serambi publicly retract the advertisement, return the advertising fee to the event sponsors, and issue a formal apology to the people of Aceh, in print and online, for tempting them away from their legislated path to piety?

Categories
Aceh Book Club Indonesia

Book Club: Women in Acehnese Society

Today I had the pleasure of attending a luncheon launch for a book in which I was indirectly involved. In my previous post, I wrote about the ARTI (Aceh Research Training Institute) scholars who attended a seminar in Yogyakarta. This book is also an ARTI project, a compilation of recent research on women in Acehnese society titled Perempuan Dalam Masyarakat Aceh: Memahami Beberapa Persoalan Kekinian. Two out of the ten chapters were written by ARTI researchers that I advised, so the publication of this book is a moment of pride and celebration.

The title of the book in translation is simply Women in Acehnese Society: Understanding Some Contemporary Issues. In most academic environments it would be nearly impossible to publish a volume with such a broad and banal theme, but the desperate need for any research about women in Aceh based on real data allows the editors and publisher to get away with it this time. After a thorough review of the sparse social science literature on women in Aceh (less than seven pages!), name-checking the international heavyweights (Snouck Hurgronje, James T. Siegel, Jackie Siapno, Anthony Reid) and mentioning many others I have not read yet, the editors introduce the book with two basic and convincing premises that justify its publication:

  1. Women in Aceh are often cited for their strength and leadership, and this “social fact” tends to justify a light hand when it comes to investments in women’s empowerment or gender mainstreaming. The major problem with this, however, is that all the citations of women’s strength and leadership precede the consolidation of Dutch colonial power more than 100 years ago.  Yes, there were sultanas who ruled Aceh. Yes, there were high-ranking military women leading the charge against the Dutch during the war. But any post-colonial analysis of women’s strength and leadership in Aceh is wholly confined to the domestic sphere (home ownership and management… po rumoh, and so on).
  2. The obvious follow-up point to the first is that the roles and status of women in any society change over time. And Aceh, in particular, is undergoing one of the most amazing historical transformations right now! These years of post-tsunami and post-conflict recovery present women (and everyone else) with radically different risks and opportunities. So now more than ever is not the time to rely upon static truisms that glorify Acehnese women of the past and allow policy-makers to ignore their current needs; not when a recent history of war crimes systematically perpetrated against women goes without truth and reconciliation, and not when fervent advocates of Islamic law seize their opportunity to restrict women’s role in politics and pass laws forbidding women from wearing jeans.

That said, the research findings in this book have a modest agenda. This is hardly a feminist manifesto. These are small projects on a limited budget for young scholars without significant social science methods training. For example my two advisees, Cut Aja Fauziah and Dr. Sarah Firdausa, both studied topics of women’s reproductive health, but from two very different methodological perspectives. Aja studied local myths about women and pregnancy in a few villages in Aceh Barat, and in the style of an old-school ethnography she catalogues the taboos and other customs that pregnant women in Aceh typically follow and how they feel about it. (“Perempuan dan Mitos Kehamilan: Studi Kasus di Kecamatan Meureubo Aceh Barat” pp.53-76) Sarah did a questionnaire-based cross-sectional study about the sexual health knowledge, attitudes, and practices of middle-school girls who attend traditional and modern religious boarding schools in Aceh Besar. (“Kesehatan Reproduksi dalam Perspektif Santriwati Pesantren Modern dan Tradisional di Aceh” pp.77-100) Both finished their fieldwork with fascinating and occasionally shocking results, but neither translate their findings into a gender-based polemic (although both could have easily done that). Instead, they suggest mundane but imperative changes in health policy and health education.

Other topics covered in this book include domestic and sexual violence, marriage law, women’s leadership in higher education and in religious schools, gender roles in a rice-farming village, and (my favorite —>) the gendered spaces of post-tsunami reconstruction housing units. My friend Azwar from Logica ensured the funding was available to get this book published. Another friend Sehat (what a terrific name!) from IAIN Ar-Raniry copy-edited the book, and Aceh’s foremost gender scholar, Eka Srimulyani, also from IAIN, along with her colleague Inayatillah co-edited the book. Today they emphasized the celebratory aspect of this book’s publication, and they should be proud and gratified with the results, but I am looking ahead, and hoping that this kind of scholarship opens up the field and raises the standard for future research in Aceh not just about women, but also about men, from a gender perspective.