Aceh's female flogging squad in action

A member of the first female flogging squad in Indonesia's Aceh province preparing to whip a woman last month. Public whipping is a common punishment in the province for premarital sex, adultery, drinking alcohol, gambling and other behaviour that co
A member of the first female flogging squad in Indonesia's Aceh province preparing to whip a woman last month. Public whipping is a common punishment in the province for premarital sex, adultery, drinking alcohol, gambling and other behaviour that contravenes Islamic law, or syariah. Aceh officials say syariah also calls for women to whip female perpetrators. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BANDA ACEH • The masked woman nervously approaches her target, shuffles into position and then unleashes a flurry of lashes - proving herself as the newest member of the first female flogging squad in Indonesia's Aceh province.

The new recruit initially needed some coaxing to punish the offender - an unmarried woman caught in a hotel room with a man. Such behaviour constitutes a morality crime in Aceh, the only region in the world's biggest Muslim-majority nation that imposes Islamic law - known as syariah.

Those found guilty of breaches are often publicly whipped with a rattan cane.

Despite her initial reticence, the flogger persevered and delivered her first strokes.

"I think she did a good job. Her technique was nice," Banda Aceh syariah police chief investigator Zakwan, who uses one name, told Agence France-Presse.

The controversial punishment enrages rights activists and generates heated debate in the media, as well as among politicians.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo has issued a call for the public floggings to stop, but he has little say over what happens in Aceh, a deeply conservative region on Sumatra Island. Unlike the rest of the nation, Aceh follows religious law as part of a 2005 autonomy deal agreed with the central government that ended a decades-long separatist insurgency.

Here, public whipping remains a common punishment for scores of offenders, for a range of charges including gambling, adultery, drinking alcohol, and having gay or premarital sex.

But the job has always been done by men. Until now.

More and more women are being charged with morality crimes such as public displays of affection or premarital sex, experts say, as greater Internet access and globalisation bring clashes with local cultural and religious norms.

Enforcement, too, has increased, and Aceh says it is trying to follow Islamic law, which calls for women to whip female perpetrators.

But convincing women to participate has been no easy task, and it has taken years to assemble the first female squad, according to Mr Safriadi, who heads the Syariah Implementation Unit in the provincial capital Banda Aceh.

Eight women - all syariah officers - agreed to be floggers. They were trained in the appropriate technique and advised on how to limit injury.

Previously, a dozen men performed all the whippings in the city for an unspecified fee.

For security reasons, Aceh officials declined to let AFP speak with the floggers, who wear cloth masks and loose-fitting brown uniforms to hide their identities.

"We train them to make sure they're physically fit and teach them how to do a proper whipping," Mr Zakwan said.

But the secret for any whipping is getting past the mental hurdle of lashing fellow citizens.

For that, you need to look to God, Mr Zakwan said. "It's kind of an indoctrination that we give to them so they have a better understanding of their role - have no mercy for those who violate God's law."

Aceh officials insist that caning deters crime. Patrols often scour public places and establishments - or act on tip-offs - to monitor residents' behaviour.

Syariah police in Banda Aceh, a city of about 220,000 people, are on the streets round the clock, working in three shifts.

On a recent patrol, a couple found sitting close to each other on the beach escaped with a reprimand. But a group of men and women spotted at a coffee shop at around 3am were arrested on suspicion of breaking strict codes about unmarried men and women interacting.

"This shows that we never sleep while looking for violations of syariah," Mr Safriadi said.

From behind bars, one of the men said that there was nothing romantic happening at the coffee shop. "We don't even know the women, and were sitting at different tables," he told AFP.

The women were later released with a reprimand, as were the men.

"Syariah in Aceh is still lenient," said resident Saiful Tengkuh. "Aceh needs harsher punishments like stoning, not just whipping. Someone committing adultery should be stoned 100 times," he added.

Aceh, which is home to about 5 million people, once mulled over beheading for serious crimes, but the central government ruled it out.

Last year, Aceh made headlines for issuing a fatwa, or religious edict, against online game PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, and for opposing a national women's football league because it did not have a stadium where only female players, match officials and spectators would be present.

But public whipping is often what gets Aceh in the news - unwanted attention that local officials say is Islamophobic. Advocates say many people caught breaking religious law choose whipping as an efficient, if painful, way to avoid a stiff jail term.

But this rough justice can take a toll. Floggings can be so severe that people pass out or are hospitalised, with the most serious crimes - including gay sex and having relations with a minor - earning as many as 150 lashes.

Many offenders have fled the area out of shame, or because customers deserted their businesses.

Few are keen to discuss their experience. For women, being arrested for even a minor violation can lead to victimisation, including sexual harassment and rape during arrest, according to research by the Network for Civil Society Concerned with Syariah.

Reporting these assaults without proof can even open up victims to flogging for making a false accusation, it added.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have often condemned such punishments as barbaric, inhumane and tantamount to torture.

But Aceh officials insist they are "far more lenient" than ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia and some other Muslim nations.

"We're not aiming to hurt people by whipping them," Mr Safriadi said. "The most important thing is the shaming effect on violators and spectators so they don't do it again."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2020, with the headline Aceh's female flogging squad in action. Subscribe