Justified injustice? Shari’a law in Aceh, Indonesia

Aceh is not alone

Jessica Van Lieven

Politics, Society and culture | Southeast Asia

30 May 2014

Jess Van Lieven looks into a modern issue of legal pluralism.

On the 8th of May, a young widow in the Indonesian province of Aceh was sentenced to a public flogging of nine lashes as punishment for being intimate with a married man. The sanction was handed down after the widow was gang raped by eight vigilantes intent on enforcing the shari’a prohibition on sex outside of marriage.

Aceh, which in 2005 was granted political autonomy through recognition as a “special province”, is the only area in Indonesia to enforce the Islamic legal code of shari’a law. The severity of Aceh’s shari’a law enforcement has been traced by commentators to the devastating impacts of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami which is estimated to have killed almost 130,000 people and left 500,000 homeless in Aceh alone. Many of Aceh’s citizens believe the tsunami was a punishment from God for impiety and as a result the majoritarian Muslim population has renewed efforts to enforce piety and hence prevent another disaster.

The legal enforceability of shari’a law comes from the successful passage of the Qanun Jinayat in February this year by Aceh’s legislature.The Qanun Jinayat is a revision of the controversial 2009 Qanun (law), which failed to pass due to the introduction of stoning until death as a punishment for adultery. Under the new Qanun Jinayat, both Muslim and non-Muslim citizens will be required to comply with shari’a law. Any contravention of the legislation will lead to punishment being meted out according to shari’a law if the offence is not covered under the Aceh Criminal Code.

In addition to the prohibition against adultery, shari’a law imposes restrictions on the way women dress and their public behaviour. Women are prohibited from wearing tight pants and must wear a veil to cover their hair. They are only permitted to ride side-saddle on a motorcycle and in northern Aceh women are not allowed to dance in public. Furthermore, a law on ‘seclusion’ prevents a woman and man unrelated by blood from being alone together in an ‘isolated’ place.

The Wilayatul Hisbah (shari’a police) are the main enforcers of shari’a law in Aceh, patrolling public places and issuing warnings if they detect that shari’a law has been breached. These patrols enforce the clothing restrictions as well as bans on gambling and drinking by stopping vehicles and apprehending people in the streets. In their 2010 report Policing Morality: Abuses in the Application of Sharia in Aceh, Indonesia, Human Rights Watch recorded the testimony of a woman named Dewi who was stopped by shari’a police for violating the requirement to wear a veil. She told them:

“I said, ‘It’s my choice to wear the veil – it’s my business with God.’ The [Sharia police officer’s] answer was, ‘No, there is a rule in Islam that regulates it.’ Then they gave back my ID card and told me that if I did the same thing three times I would be whipped…. I might want to use a veil, but not because I’m forced by the [Sharia police], because I want to.” (Page 1)

Navigating a discussion about the place of women in the Islamic legal code is akin to navigating a political and religious minefield. Do all women choose to wear the hijab as a mark of respect, or do they feel compelled by their religion (or the male leaders of their community) to comply with the expectations set out for them? What do the implications of enforcing such behavioural norms tell us about respect for women as equals? In the case of the young widow, what does it say if a band of vigilantes can gang-rape a woman and escape punishment while the rape victim is publically flogged for ‘intimacy’?

In my mind, such attitudes frame sexuality as a weapon. On the one hand, the rape of the young widow was couched in terms of extra-judicial punishment. Her rape was justice for her crime of ‘intimacy’. On the other hand, the woman was not unfaithful – it was her lover who was married. Yet evidence of her sexuality was still punishable, and in the cruellest way possible; by violation of her body, supposedly the vessel, which she herself, by committing adultery, had already violated.

According to the Qanun passed in 2003, the ostensible purpose of shari’a law enforcement in Aceh is to prevent the public from damage to their honour and dignity. However, its provisions have been characterised as infringing many international human rights covenants which protect rights to privacy and to freedom of expression and religious practice. While shari’a law is certainly valid in its application to Muslims just as the Criminal Code is in its application to Indonesian citizens, the patent discrimination against women with regard to dress and private interactions is a concerning attribute of its implementation.

Aceh is not alone in its formal legalisation of the Islamic code. On May 1 this year Brunei became the first country in East Asia to adopt the laws when it passed a three stage, two-year implementation scheme for shari’a law. These laws include provision for the severing of limbs for property crimes and stoning to death for the crimes of homosexuality and adultery. In a statement responding to outcry against the introduction of the laws, the sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah said, “theory states that God’s law is harsh and unfair, but God himself has said that his law is indeed fair.”

There is no doubt the international community will be watching with trepidation as the rollout continues over the next two years. Could the transition to shari’a law in Brunei and Aceh foreshadow a similar trend in other Muslim-majority countries in Asia? What are the implications of such laws contravening internationally recognized human rights? Will these countries’ sovereign rights to manage their internal affairs be disregarded in the interests of preventing such human abuses? For now, all we can do is wait and see.

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