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 Indonesia

Perceptions of Aceh in Yogyakarta

For the past three years, the Aceh Research Training Institute (ARTI), has trained young scholars from academia, government, and the non-profit sector in social science research methods. After two selective short courses, ARTI awards small 6-month research grants to the most promising proposals. I have had the great pleasure of mentoring four women in the program. As ARTI concludes its program (for now), the Australian director of the program together with the Director of Gadjah Mada University’s (UGM) Graduate School (Sekolah Pascasarjana) decided to showcase this year’s ARTI researchers together with some UGM students at a day-long seminar at UGM’s grad school campus in Yogyakarta. The seminar preceded UGM’s first ever graduate student conference, and some of the ARTI researchers presented there as well. Altogether, it was three full days of Indonesian academic discourse for young and emerging scholars in the social sciences, with maximum attendance and plenty of interesting research content. ARTI supported eight researchers from Aceh to come to Yogya and take part in these events. Their research covered a range of topics such as:

  • Participation of Women Candidates in Provincial and District Level Legislative Elections in Aceh
  • The 2009 Legislative Elections in Post-Conflict Aceh
  • Child Abuse During and After the Conflict at an Orphanage in Aceh Utara District
  • Perceptions of Exclusive Breast Feeding Among First-time Mothers in a Suburban Village on the Outskirts of Lhokseumawe, Aceh
  • College Students in Banda Aceh and Their Efforts to Quit Smoking
  • The Politics Behind the Khalwat Legislation in Aceh
  • New Urban Sufism Practices and Institutions in Banda Aceh

Their presentations were great, as good if not better than the other researchers from Yogya and other parts of Indonesia. I advised three of the presenters and felt especially proud of their performance and the way they handled both positive feedback and constructive criticism during the Q&A.

The questions from the audience unwittingly revealed, one after another, the peculiar stereotypes and misperceptions that non-Acehnese Indonesians still hold about Acehnese society five years after the tsunami, and more than four years after the peace agreement that ended 30 years of separatist conflict against the Indonesian state. Here are three examples:

  1. Two presentations on the same panel covered aspects of GAM’s transformation from armed insurgency into a political machine that, following recent elections, now dominates the provincial government and many district governments. This prompted a woman in the audience to share her concern and ask whether GAM has a hidden agenda to resume their struggle for independence though internationalization. Indeed, the Acehnese diaspora did a terrific job of lobbying the international community, promoting GAM’s struggle, during the conflict. Furthermore, it was no small victory for GAM to hold the peace talks in Helsinki instead of in Indonesia. She worried that GAM still employs this strategy and her evidence was the provincial government’s international scholarship program for dozens (if not hundreds) of Acehnese to pursue graduate studies abroad. Never mind that the scholarship program began before Partai Aceh (GAM’s local political party) was even established let alone won any elections. Never mind that the program is a smart investment in Aceh’s future now that the provincial government finally enjoys access to revenue from its natural resources (thanks to the peace agreement). Never mind that such investments are necessary after the conflict kept Acehnese society closed to the world of ideas for at least a generation. And never mind that investing in education is all the more urgent after the tsunami killed thousands upon thousands of Aceh’s most productive and skilled citizens in Banda Aceh and other urban centers along the coast. Her question about the scholarship program had nothing to do with the elections, the main subject of the presentations. Concerned Indonesian nationalists do wonder if Partai Aceh will pursue independence for Aceh through the political process now that they run the provincial government, but that’s not what she asked. She thinks GAM is sending out Acehnese missionaries to schools around the world to promote Aceh’s independence and she told us this after two talks about the elections. What.
  2. After a fascinating and deeply concerning presentation about the stack of problems that first-time mothers face in exclusively breastfeeding their babies during the first six months after childbirth, a woman asked whether Arab influence (arabisasi) is responsible for the decrease in breastfeeding mothers. The presenter already covered the far more proximate and convincing roles played by midwives, nurses, families, Acehnese beliefs about women and childbirth, postpartum diet, the baby milk formula and advertising industries, and basic health education. This woman felt that the Arabisation of Aceh should be added to the list, because, well, she once heard that Arab culture is not supportive of women and childbirth. Ya Allahhh (read: OMG)… OK, to be fair, the Arabisation of Indonesian society at large has been a subject of contentious public debate for at least the past ten years. And Aceh, after all, is known as “Mecca’s Verandah” (Serambi Mekkah), and was Islam’s point of entry into the Malay archipelago so many centuries ago. More recently, the formal implementation of Islamic law in Aceh this decade is held up as one of Indonesia’s most troubling examples of Arabisation. The woman who asked the question is tapping into the widely accepted notion that Aceh is full of Islamic fanatics and therefore must be prone to Arab influence, paving the way for the rest of Indonesia to follow suit. Arabisasi in Indonesia is a debatable phenomenon to begin with, a catch-all term to name the rapid changes in Islamic practice in Indonesia that feel inconsistent with local practice, even more so in Java than in Sumatra. But even if we accept Arabisation at face value, I wonder if she would ask the same question if the case study on breastfeeding was conducted in a suburban village on the outskirts of Yogya instead of Lhokseumawe? Let’s be clear: Indonesians think Acehnese are fanatics because Snouck Hurgronje said they were, 100 years ago! Post-colonial Jakarta inherited and perfected Batavia’s convenient othering artifice that first justified Dutch and then Indonesian military oppression in Aceh. I could go on and on about this, but the point here is that young Acehnese mothers have so much more to worry about when trying to breastfeed their babies than the Arabs.
  3. In Aceh, the word qanun means regional laws (peraturan daerah or perda in other provinces). There are a few qanun in Aceh that define a provincial-wide criminal code based on Islamic law. One of the presentations told the history of the khalwat qanun and the political and religious interests that surrounded it. I’m no expert in Islamic law, but the khalwat law forbids various sexual and other kinds of vice, and defines the corporal punishments for breaking the law which include caning with a rattan whip. After this presentation, a man asked the presenter whether or not “qanun” in Aceh (by which I think he meant various Islamic laws ratified and implemented in Aceh and not qanun in general) can survive when ganja farming and ganja use are such a huge problem in Aceh. Huh what? I guess he was implying that Acehnese society would never by pious enough to live by Islamic law if everyone in Aceh smokes ganja. To my knowledge, there are qanun based on Islamic law that deal with alcohol consumption, but I’m not sure if they cover ganja use. Anyway, setting aside ganja for the moment, many Acehnese still drink alcohol, gamble, cheat on their spouses, and enjoy pre-marital sex… and these are all clear breaches of Islamic law codified in qanun. This guy thinks that real world vice practices are actually a threat to qanun on the books. He even thinks that real world practices possibly not even covered in qanun will also threaten the qanun’s existence. Or maybe he just wanted to remind the presenter and everyone in the seminar room that Aceh has a well established, but illegal, ganja production and trade industry, and that reflects poorly on the people of Aceh and puts a stain on Indonesia’s reputation. Ganja has been a cooking ingredient in Aceh for generations, and the seeds are often crushed and used as a kind of “natural MSG” as well. I don’t believe this actually makes anyone high, but people like to joke that it does. Since the crop has always been a part of the local agriculture, it was exploited, especially as a source of black market revenue during the conflict, and developed into a lucrative industry, supplying the demand for ganja throughout Indonesia and possibly throughout Southeast Asia (I’m no expert on this either). These are real issues, but to call ganja a threat to the very survival of qanun based on Islamic law is quite imaginary.

To the credit of the presenters, none of them even bothered to answer these three questions. The questions were so fantastically disconnected from the content of each presentation that the presenters probably didn’t even know how to begin a much more fundamental and complicated conversation that breaks down the assumptions and stereotypes that non-Acehnese Indonesians still hold against Aceh. Like the questions themselves, such a conversation is off-topic from the research findings they came to discuss. At a graduate conference, full of graduate students (and their professors), at least three people in this educated group couldn’t let go of their bias and fear, and sadly allowed themselves to ask foolish questions.

On the flip-side, an Acehnese graduate student (not from our ARTI group, thank goodness!) from Nagan Raya district stood up and embarrassed himself as well. Following a presentation about women’s participation in local politics in Aceh Utara and Lhokseumawe delivered by a very smart and articulate woman from Malikusaleh University, this guy from Nagan Raya told her that she really should have checked the election results from Nagan Raya in 2004, when he was on the elections oversight board (panwaslu) there, because a lot of women won in his district. He embodied the worst in Aceh gender dynamics, challenging the presenter more rudely than he would have if the presenter was a man. Again, he was off-topic, as she had clearly demarcated her research to the 2009 elections in Aceh Utara and Lhokseumawe, completely on the opposite coast of Aceh from Nagan Raya. The panel moderator had told the audience very strictly and clearly that each person could ask only one question, but this dude wanted to ask four! A friend of mine who was sitting next to where he was standing reached over and turned off the microphone because everyone in the auditorium was protesting the number and length of his questions. Our Aceh delegation from ARTI was pretty embarrassed, because as the above examples illustrate, Acehnese have enough negative perceptions stacked against them. This Acehnese guy from Nagan Raya spoke publicly at UGM in a way that confirms and diminishes other Indonesians’ image of Aceh.

Since I started working in Aceh in 2005 I have become familiar with many of the assumptions and stereotypes that people in Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia (in Java and Bali especially, where the majority of Indonesians live anyway) hold against Aceh, but this conference demonstrated many of them in concentrated and instructive form. Their assumptions interfered and prevented them from carefully listening to the young scholars from ARTI and understanding local dynamics in Aceh as they were reflected in the ARTI scholars’ presentations. Beyond this seminar, the ways that powerful people in Jakarta and in Indonesia’s most distinguished halls of academia like UGM misperceive Aceh has more sinister consequences. My advisor has had the surreal experience of presenting findings at UGM from our research about levels of violence and psychological disabilities in conflict-affected communities in Aceh. The numbers are powerful and scary, and there is an implicit message about Java’s complicity in the violence that occurred there. Reactions from the audience vary, but a common response is a somber “we never knew.” Such ignorance may be largely attributed to an orchestrated disinformation and obfuscation campaign by the government, but such an effort is so much easier when you can rely on century-old discourses about Aceh that always and already make sure that you never wanted to know in the first place.