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Despite the 2005 peace pact that ended 30 years of bloody conflict in Aceh, life in the province has not improved for women and children since then.
That was the stark message conveyed by a panel of women activists from Indonesia’s westernmost province, who were in Jakarta June 4th to present findings on violence against women in Aceh from 2011-2012.
During that time, there were 1,060 cases of violence against women, according to the 231 Monitoring Network, a coalition of women’s rights groups based in Aceh.
The name refers to Article 231, on women empowerment and child protection, of Law No. 11 2006, which allowed Aceh to implement Sharia Law under its special autonomy status.
The coalition argues that women have been victimised, not protected, as a result of the imposition of Sharia law in Aceh. They face difficulty accessing justice, stigmatisation, intimidation and violence.
The activists stressed, however, that they are not against Sharia itself. It is the way it is being implemented that is raising questions.
“The implementation of Sharia Law should be able to restore proper justice and improve social welfare to its citizens, which we did not get during the conflict,” Samsidar, an activist from the Aceh Women’s Legal Aid Foundation (LBH Apik Aceh), told Khabar Southeast Asia.
“On top of that, it should protect women and children in Aceh,” she added.
Cruel and humiliating punishments
The National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan), which hosted the gathering, has identified 282 regional regulations (Perda) that discriminate against women in various parts of Indonesia.
In Aceh, Komnas Perempuan has identified 15 such regulations. Violating them can lead to cruel and humiliating punishments such as beatings, canings, being bathed in sewage water, and forced marriages, the group said.
“Many regulations are established to promote religious values and morality. But their implementation tends to violate human rights which are protected by the Indonesian Constitution,” Komnas Perempuan Commissioner Andy Yentriyani said.
Aziana Rambe, the secretary general of Women Volunteers for Humanity (RPuK), told reporters that some regulations merely serve to distract local people from more important issues.
A new bylaw forbidding tight outfits for women in Meulaboh, West Aceh, diverts attention from the government’s failure to provide housing for 2004 tsunami victims in Meulaboh, she charged.
If the local government were properly implementing Sharia Law, “they would focus on how to improve Islamic public service and social welfare for Aceh citizens,” Aziana argued.
She said they would neither focus on the women’s outfits nor women’s dancing.
Pro-democracy and pro-Islam
In Aceh, those who criticise authorities are quickly labeled anti-Sharia or anti-Islam. The activists, however, say that is not true.
“As Acehnese, why would we speak something bad about Aceh and still want to return to Aceh at the end of the day?” Norma Manalu, an activist from the Women’s Shura Hall of Aceh (BSUIA), told the forum.
“We want Aceh to be safe. We want to go home without violence or discrimination anymore. We just want to live peacefully with our families in Aceh,” she explained in tears.
“We are not against the government. But if something is wrong, we should tell the government and provide them with some inputs,” said Suraiya Khamauzaman, founder of the Flower Aceh Foundation. “It is very important for the government and civil society to work together to meet our goal in eradicating discrimination against women and also improving social welfare.”
The women made it clear they embrace both democracy and Islam. “Indonesia is a democratic country, and Aceh is part of Indonesia. Therefore, we believe that there is a democratic space in Aceh as well,” Samsidar said.
“Even though there are many risks ahead of us, we want to use our right as Indonesian citizens to make our voices heard. It needs to be understood that Islam is a religion of justice, a religion of love, and cares about other people. Islam is a religion of equality and peace,” she added.
A Muslim scholar is among those expressing doubt that the prohibition will make women safer.
A planned regulation banning female passengers from straddling motorcycles in Lhokseumawe, Aceh has sparked criticism from Indonesians, including a leading Muslim scholar who says it does not reflect the spirit of Sharia law.
Suaidi Yahya, the mayor of Aceh’s second largest city, said earlier this month he would issue the regulation because “it’s improper for women to sit astride. We implement Islamic law here.”
“Women sitting on motorbikes must not sit astride because it will provoke the male driver. It’s also to protect women from an undesirable condition,” Suaidi told AFP on January 2nd.
He said women could face forward in an emergency situation, or if they are driving, as long as they are dressed “in a Muslim way”.
His administration has started distributing handouts throughout the municipality to inform residents of the new policy before the plan is legally implemented in a few months, he said.
Unsafe for riders?
The plan has sparked widespread criticism from Indonesians who say it is unsafe.
Cut Fitriani, 34, an Acehnese woman who moved from Aceh to Jakarta in the last two years, told Khabar that the Lhoksumawe administration has demonstrated ignorance of safe driving principals.
“I don’t see that the regulation is very Islamic. Instead, it puts women in a dangerous situation. I believe that drivers will have difficulty keeping their balance,” she said.
Jusri Pulubuhu, a founder of Jakarta Defensive Driving Consulting (JDDC), told Khabar his group strongly suggests that motorcycle passengers sit facing forward.
“When you are driving a motorcycle, you have to know how to keep it stable and balanced,” Jusri said.
“When a motorcycle passenger is sidesaddle, it would be difficult for the passenger to find a safe position because her two legs would not be within the handlebar area,” he added.
“One of the safety requirements of driving a motorcycle is that any object or passenger must stay within the handlebar area.”
Siti Musdah Mulia, chairwoman of the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP), argued that the regulation has nothing to do with Sharia Islam and it puts female passenger in danger.
Further, she argued that the bylaw is incompatible with the spirit of Sharia.
“A regulation must give a protection to the citizen, instead of putting the citizen in danger. Even during the prophet period, the prophet’s wife was sitting forward-facing while they were riding a camel,” she said.
“Therefore, I do not think that there is a theological reason for this regulation,” she added,
By implementing Sharia Islam, the local government must improve the welfare of its citizens. That is what being an Islamic society means, Siti told Khabar.
Central government review
Home Affairs Minister Gamawan Fauzi said the central government will review the planned bylaw, and could annul it.
“[It will be reviewed] whether the bylaw is too much or [whether] it is to maintain the tradition,” he told reporters January 7th in Bogor, outside Jakarta.
“If it is to maintain the tradition, it is alright. [But] it should be studied first [to find out] what is the purpose of the regulation,” he said, adding, it would take up to one month to evaluate the bylaw, and that his office had not yet received a copy of it.