In Aceh, questions about fairness

Strict Islamic law is in force in the province of Aceh in Indonesia, the state of Kelantan in Malaysia and the sultanate of Brunei Darussalam. ST Regional Correspondent Amy Chew visited all three places to look at life under syariah there.

As her night shift winds down, hotel receptionist Indri is feeling nervous about returning home. It's 11 o'clock and the motorbike ride to her village takes her along darkened streets, past closed shops and restaurants, in the seaside district of Ulee Lheue in Banda Aceh, in north Sumatra.

But it is not the half-hour ride through Aceh's provincial capital that is making her anxious - she is breaking the law.

"I am scared of being stopped by the religious police for being out on the streets after 11," says Indri, who works in one of the city's top hotels.

Aceh's government last month decreed that women working or visiting night spots must be home by 11pm, the latest in a string of measures in Indonesia's only province ruled by syariah.  

Says a 22-year-old waitress, who did not want her name used: "This is going to make my life very difficult. I finish work late every night. I don't agree with this and I am sure most women will disagree."


Aceh has turned into this because the government does not have the capability to bring prosperity and justice to society.

WOMEN'S ACTIVIST SAMSIDAR, on the proliferation of syariah by-laws

Internet cafes, tourist sites, sports facilities and entertainment venues have also been ordered to refuse service to women after 11pm unless accompanied by a husband or male family member, or risk losing their business licence.

Aceh was granted special autonomy in 2001 by the late president Abdurrahman Wahid, who tried to end a bloody 29-year-old armed separatist insurgency. The brutal conflict, which left 15,000 people dead, ended four years later in 2005, barely a year after a devastating tsunami swept through the region.

Syariah has become more pervasive during the past decade, a trend not without its critics, even within the staunchly Muslim province.

Acehnese support syariah laws but not the way they are currently implemented, according to the Aceh Civilisation Institute (ACI), a social non-governmental organisation. "In theory, we support syariah laws but don't make women the object of syariah's implementation or the poor people," says ACI head Haekal Afifa.


As an example, he cited the ban on women riding motorbikes with a man who is not a family member.


"Women take the 'ojek' (motorbike taxis) to go to work as there is virtually no public transport here," says Mr Haekal. "The government must consider the economic, social and infrastructural development before implementing syariah laws."

The Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (Kontras) Aceh says it is discrimination. "The syariah regulations have turned out to largely discriminate against women," says coordinator Hendra Saputra.

Women's activist Samsidar believes the proliferation of syariah by-laws is partly to compensate for the government's failure to develop the economy.

"Aceh has turned into this because the government does not have the capability to bring prosperity and justice to society," she says.

Aceh's economy is in the doldrums. It grew a mere 1.65 per cent last year versus the national average of 5.02 per cent. Unemployment was a high 9.02 per cent, compared with the national average of 5.94 per cent during the same period, according to official figures.

"There is no political will and a lack of ideas by Aceh's government to develop the economy," says Professor Raja Masbar, of Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh.

There are only two factories in this mainly agrarian province, which once was rich in natural gas. One of the world's largest gas fields was discovered in the province in 1971 but the Arun field operated by ExxonMobil shut down last year because it dried up.

Mr Teuku Ari Abu Bakar operates a small online games centre and he is worried about the future.

Last year, two weeks before Ramadan, he was ordered to close for the holy month because his business was considered an entertainment spot. "I lost a lot of money and I could not pay my two staff. There is no gambling at my place. Only pure computer games," says Mr Ari. "There are so many restrictions that it only deters investors from coming here."

Non-Muslims are no longer exempt from syariah laws after the local legislature passed a by-law last year. They can now be tried by syariah courts for offences not criminalised by national courts such as khalwat (close proximity between unmarried couples) or consuming liquor. There are some 90,000 non-Muslims in this province of 4.9 million people.

"I feel this is unfair and I am scared but what can I do," says 16-year-old Christian student Luis Valentino, who was born in Aceh. "I will just have to try my utmost not to violate any of the syariah laws."

Last month, three couples were publicly caned in a square in Banda Aceh after the unmarried university students were caught spending time alone together.

A rowdy crowd of about 1,000 spectators shouted as the three men and three women, aged between 18 and 23, were lashed several times with a rattan cane.

A fourth woman, aged in her 40s, was publicly caned for adultery.

"Caning here in Aceh is not like in Malaysia and Singapore where your skin will break and hurt badly," says Professor Syahrizal Abbas, head of the Aceh Islamic Syariah Department in Aceh's local government.

"Caning here is more like a tap, tap, tap," he says, gesturing with his hand. "It is not to torture the person but to remind him that he has broken God's laws."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2015, with the headline 'In Aceh, questions about fairness'. Print Edition | Subscribe