Earlier this year, Sharia police arrested a 20-year-old college student and her boyfriend for indecency; they had been spending time together even though they were not legally married.
Her boyfriend was released, but she was detained and then allegedly raped by three policemen. Two of the men are on trial, while the third is at large.
That incident and others, such as the ban on tight trousers, have sparked outrage among rights activists, who say the laws disproportionately target women.
“This really poses a big challenge… there are policies that discriminate against and violate women,” Iriantoni Almura, programme officer for the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in Aceh, told IRIN.
Home to more than 240 million people and the world’s largest Muslim population, Indonesia practises an Islam that is relatively modern and moderate. But Aceh, which suffered decades of war and was devastated by the 2004 tsunami, prides itself as the place where Islam first gained a foothold in Southeast Asia and is far more conservative.
Unlike other parts of Indonesia where women go without headscarves and wear skirts and short-sleeved shirts, in Aceh, nearly all women cover their heads and wear long sleeves and trousers so little skin is showing. The government recently prohibited shops from selling tight dresses and began distributing long skirts to women wearing tight trousers or denim jeans.
Islamic courts in Aceh had long handled marriage, divorce and inheritance cases, but since gaining special autonomous status in 2001, the coverage of its Islamic courts has now been extended to criminal cases as well.
In September 2009, provincial lawmakers passed a provision that would allow adulterers to be stoned to death.
“It was met with horror by a lot of the women’s rights groups,” said Sidney Jones, senior adviser with the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Jakarta. Under pressure from civil society groups and human rights NGOs, the law has not yet been passed.
[Indonesia] A mother and her small child at a mass grave outside tsunami-devastated Banda Aceh. More than 130,000 people were killed and over half a million left homeless in the 26 December 2004 disaster. [Date picture taken: 10/20/2006]
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
A mother and her child at a mass grave outside tsunami-devastated Banda Aceh
According to the ICG, “the most problematic institution set up under Islamic law has been the vice and virtue patrol tasked with monitoring compliance with Sharia”. Its members are highly unpopular and poorly recruited and trained, the report states.
Three laws – banning alcohol, gambling and illicit relations between men and women – are punished by caning and fines, but have been loosely interpreted, resulting in randomly cited violations and vigilante justice.
“There is a provision in the [law] that says that, as good Muslims, it is our duty to uphold its implementation, but this is misunderstood by many to think that they have the power to mete out their own punishments,” said Suraiya Kamaruzaman, founder of one of the province’s first women’s rights groups, Flower Aceh.
Kamaruzaman said that in remote villages, people thought to be having an adulterous affair are subjected to public humiliation. “One couple was paraded naked around the village. There have also been reports of couples being stripped of their clothing and having dirty water poured on them,” she said.
Evi Narti Zain, executive director of the Aceh Human Rights NGO Coalition, said the Sharia police have even applied gambling laws to accuse and cane women selling lottery tickets. Some of these women have no choice but to flee their villages because of the shame they have brought upon their families.
“The role of the Sharia police is merely to educate and inform people about the implementation of the Sharia law,” Zain said. “Their powers are already limited, but the problem is that not many people know about the limitations.
“The enemy has changed. Before when there was conflict, the main focus was how to survive on a daily basis, but now, there is so much more focus on these morality issues and women are often the target,” Zain said.
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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions