News / Asia

Filmmakers in Indonesia Share Women's Stories About Life Under Islamic Law

Islamic law has been raising questions in Indonesia, a Muslim-majority nation where some provinces are adopting regulations based on Sharia, or Islamic, principles. Human rights groups, however, warn that the laws often are enforced unfairly, particularly for women. Filmmakers in Indonesia have recently released documentaries to show the effects Islamic law has on women.

The film opens with shots of a market, where mannequins in tight-fitting T-shirts contrast with girls in long skirts and headscarves. The sight is common in Aceh Province, which gained the right to implement Sharia law as a part of a peace accord with the Indonesian government.

To show the role Sharia plays in the life of Muslim women, organizers of a recent female film festival in Jakarta highlighted five documentaries on the subject.

Director Ucu Agustin says she worries people are not critical enough of laws that restrict their freedoms.

She says Sharia law should protect Muslims, but from what she has seen they are often the victims. She thinks one day there will be a resistance, but it may come after too many people have been victimized.

There are Muslims who disagree. Around the world, many Muslims welcome Sharia, particularly as a way to fight corruption and social problems such as prostitution. The films include interviews with people who endorse Sharia, such as two young Acehnese women who say modest dress is needed to cover the parts of the body said to entice men.

Another film reveals widespread support for the whipping punishment handed down to a Muslim woman in Malaysia, Kartika Sari Dewi Shukharno, who was caught drinking a beer in public. The sentence was later reduced to three weeks of community service.

The film's director, Norhayati Kaprawi, also a member of a Muslim women's rights group in Malaysia, says she was shocked when she saw a survey that indicated around 75 percent of Malaysian Muslims supported the caning sentence.

Men have also been sentenced to whipping for breaking Sharia laws in Malaysia, but Kaprawi says the Kartika case raised attention because it became a moral issue.

"I don't know whether because Kartika is a woman, or I believe that because she is a model that is also a factor, because they (Muslims) see her as a bad woman, a loose woman," Norhayati said.

Provinces on Indonesia's Sulawesi Island have passed Sharia-based laws that set curfews for women, regulate dress and punish violators with public whippings.

Yuniyanti Chuzaifah, head of the national women's rights organization Komnas Perampuan, says these laws are unfair. Not only do they clash with Indonesia's secular national laws, but they also disproportionately affect women.

"Because this is talking about morality and morality always puts women as a symbol of a nation's purity … so that's why Sharia law always uses women as a marker of identity, like controlling the body of the women with the standard of the dress code," she said.

The documentaries on Aceh showed how the Sharia police often target women. Producer Ariani Djalal says many women feel uncomfortable using public spaces, such as coffee shops or beaches, many of which bar women from swimming.  

She says the beach is a gift from nature, so why is it that only women are not free to swim? She also says the education system is becoming more fundamentalist and girls must monitor they way they dress. It is already very limited in Aceh.

Officials at Indonesia's International Center for Islam and Pluralism say aside from Aceh and South Sulawesi, local interpretations of Sharia law are mainly about wearing proper clothes and doing good deeds, which is normal and not repressive.

But many critics of Sharia say that often it is used to restrict people, and to shut down discussion of its role in Islamic life. And the filmmakers say often women have little say when the laws are written.

Agustin says that is why film is important, because it can present new ideas and opinions to those who know little about Islam in the life of women. And maybe, when they see it with their own eyes, she says, they will start to understand.

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