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Indonesia’s Sharia Divorce Courts Draw Complaints of Uneven Justice

A local security personnel and a Sharia policeman stop women who flout the province's dress code by wearing tight pants during a street inspection in Banda, Aceh, June 9, 2011.

While some human rights groups have criticized the implementation of Sharia law in Indonesia's Aceh province for harassing and abusing women, officials say Islamic-based laws actually protect the rights of women, especially in cases of divorce.

After her 16 year marriage ended in 2007, 44 year-old Nurjanah's husband was ordered by an Islamic court in Aceh to pay her monthly alimony. Nurjanah says he ignored the order.

It was mandatory to award one third of his salary in support. But she says it never happened.

Sharia police controversial

Human rights groups say the more than 7,000 Sharia police in Aceh are more adept at enforcing other laws, particularly one requiring women to wear headscarves.

Critics say the regulation often leads to harassment and abuse, but Banda Aceh’s female deputy mayor, Illiza Sa'aduddin Djamal, insists enforcing an Islamic dress code for women is a top priority.

There are people who admit they are Muslim, she says, but they are not willing to follow the right rules. She adds this kind of person needs to be straightened out.

Harsh punishment

Muslims caught drinking alcohol, gambling or engaging in adultery could be forced to endure harsh and humiliating public canings. The number of caning punishments in Aceh has increased in recent years despite calls to end the practice by human rights groups who say it violates the U.N. Convention against Torture.

Evi Zain
Evi Zain

Evi Zain, an advocate for women's rights with the HAM Aceh organization says divorce cases often involve domestic abuse against women.

After the legal divorce, Zain says they are often cast out of their homes and publicly humiliated. And despite assurances from the Sharia court of financial support, she says the women are left with nothing.

Woman must carry the burden of life, she says, and there is no consequence for the man who divorces to support the woman.

Nurjanah now lives with her grown daughter and their family and spends her days taking care of her grandchild. In her case, she says Sharia law was an empty promise.

Pushing for accountability

Despite the legal shortcomings, Aceh’s Deputy Mayor Djamal says she believes that those men who refuse to support their ex-wives and children will one day have to account for their actions.

She says they will get their punishment from God. What they are doing now, she says, they know it is not a good thing and they will have take responsibility for that in the afterlife.

While justice may eventually come in the afterlife, Djamal admits that in Aceh, laws intended to protect women still struggle to overcome the local male dominated culture.