News / Asia

In Aceh, Enforced Sharia Law Has Outsized Impact

Indonesian Province Has Strictest Morality Regulations in the Country

Brian Padden

In Aceh Province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, Sharia police break up a game of dominos. Despite the players' protests that they are not gambling, the police confiscate the game and leave them this time with a warning.

The incident ends with handshakes and good humor, but this is serious business.

In 1999, Indonesia first allowed the conservative province to partially implement Sharia law, and now Aceh is under enforcement of some of the strictest morality regulations in the country. Although the laws apply to Muslims only, Sharia courts and police have grown increasingly powerful since the 2005 peace agreement that ended a 30-year war for independence, and some human rights groups say their methods involve harassment and abuse, particularly against women.

Evi Zain
Evi Zain

Evi Zain, with the human rights coalition HAM Aceh, says that, for women, the intimidating nature of enforced Sharia law enforcement institutes a culture of oppression. Although many accusations made against women contain harassment, the real problem, she says, is that some are neither brave enough nor accustomed to expressing what they feel. While Zain supports the conservative values that Sharia law strives to uphold, she says anyone who criticizes its forced implementation is labeled as anti-Islam, and that incidents of violence against women are increasingly justified by the popular attitude that women who don't obey the rules imposed by men get what they deserve.

Zain says Sharia police often abuse their authority, and that in one village they outlawed pants by mandating long skirts for women. Some Sharia police have been arrested for abuse and even rape.

Commissioner Darmansyah
Commissioner Darmansyah

According to head of the Sharia Police Information Division, Commissioner Darmansyah, the 7,000 Sharia police in Aceh merely enforce bans on gambling, alcohol consumption, adultery and dress codes for women. Whereas violation of these strictures carries a stiff, violent penalty -- adulterers are publicly caned, for example -- he says their job is primarily to educate Muslims to better understand Islamic values.

The nature of the caning is not to injure people or kill them, he says, describing it as a kind of counseling to make them think twice. He says the all-male Sharia police patrols spend most of their time counseling women to wear headscarves and trying to keep unmarried couples apart.

Many Acehnese women, such as Ernianti, support their efforts to enforce Islamic values and conduct. While women often become victims, she says, it is basically their own fault because they don't cover themselves.

Twenty-two-year-old Eci agrees. She says Sharia law should also ban the sale of non-Muslim clothing, explaining that things would be different if the market only sold Muslim dress, that there would be no more tight and sexy clothing.

Deputy Mayor Illiza Sa'aduddin Djamal
Deputy Mayor Illiza Sa'aduddin Djamal

Banda Aceh Deputy Mayor Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal says the vast majority of Muslims here also support Sharia law, and that the few who won't comply tend to be rebellious.

One such rebel is 20-year-old, English-speaking law student Nindi Silvie, who says government authorities should focus on things aside from her personal life.

"I guess they should think about how to get rid of this bad economy, how to build a good society, how to increase children's education and stuff, instead of saying your morality is bad and mine is good," she says.

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