Jul 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Patrolling sexuality

Patrolling sexuality

The authorities and the media promote vigilantism in Aceh

Sarah J Newman

   A sign in South Aceh: ‘It is forbidden for two or more persons of the opposite sex to be in seclusion or out in the
   open together if they are not relatives or married. Those who do are headed toward committing adultery.’
   Catherine Smith

On any given afternoon around the Lapangan Tugu, the large field nestled in between Syiah Kuala University and IAIN Ar-Raniry University in Banda Aceh, clusters of students can be seen hanging out together or having a snack at one of the little food stalls that start to appear there at that time of day. Groups of young men playing pick-up football seem to be the main focus of attention. But if you stroll slowly along the sidewalk, you start to notice hushed conversations between young couples. A young man and woman sitting close together, careful not to be too close.

Signs posted on the trees marking the periphery of the field admonish these young couples. ‘This is not a dating area!’ reads one. Or ‘Attention! Extreme khalwat is prohibited here.’ This latter sign was posted by the Anti-Maksiat (Anti-Sin or Anti-Immorality) Committee of Darussalam, the neighbourhood that is home to these two state universities in Banda Aceh.

An evolving legal code

Khalwat, which is prohibited by this second sign, is a word adopted into Indonesian and Acehnese from Arabic. Its common usage in Aceh today refers to an unmarried and unrelated man and woman being alone together. These types of signs are common in areas such as the Lapangan Tugu where young people frequently gather. If you stay at the field until just before the call to prayer at sunset, sometimes you will see the ‘WH’ (Wilayatul Hisbah) or syariah police drive around in their patrol car, using a bull horn to tell the young students to go home and pray.

Aceh is the only province in Indonesia that has special permission to enact syariah law in full

Aceh is the only province in Indonesia that has special permission to enact syariah law in full. Qanun (Law) 14 of 2003 on khalwat was one of the first three syariah regulations passed by the Acehnese provincial government when permission to implement syariah was granted to Aceh following the fall of the Suharto government in 1998. Along with laws prohibiting gambling and the sale and consumption of alcohol, this qanun is seen as a symbol of Aceh’s determination to reform its legal code under the influence of syariah regulations.

So far, however, change has been incremental rather than total. The first steps were taken in 1999, as part of the central government’s attempts to find a solution to the decades-long conflict that had plagued Aceh. This first stage allowed for the implementation of syariah law exclusively for Muslims and allowed the local Acehnese government to pass laws that would govern Muslims’ religious lives, custom, and education. Later in 2001, as part of an autonomy deal offered by the then President Habibie’s government, the application of syariah law in Aceh was broadened by allowing Islamic courts, which formerly only dealt with issues of family and property law, to deal with criminal justice cases as well.

Informal policing

In addition to the qanun, Islamic courts, and syariah police, informal mechanisms of implementing syariah law have also developed in Aceh. Vigilantism and community surveillance - ordinary citizens ‘taking the law into their own hands’ - have become increasingly common. As was suggested in a July 2006 International Crisis Group report on Islamic law and criminal justice in Aceh, ‘The zeal shown by the vice and virtue patrol [WH] in enforcing the [new syariah] regulations has encouraged a report-on-your-neighbour process and a kind of moral vigilantism.’

Informal mechanisms of implementing syariah law have also developed in Aceh

Vigilantism in Aceh actually predates the formalisation of syariah law. As one Acehnese woman explained, ‘The Acehnese were already used to vigilantism [when syariah law was implemented].’ However, as evidenced by a considerable number of newspaper articles that report on the common occurrence of vigilantism and citizen’s arrest in suspected khalwat cases, vigilantism has come to be seen as one of the main methods of controlling and repressing sexuality and preventing khalwat in Aceh.

This growing trend of communities patrolling sexuality parallels the WH’s own focus on issues of sexuality. Out of the 1,245 cases that the WH handled between January and May 2008, 491 cases (39 per cent) concerned alleged sexual misconduct. As an article in the Jakarta Post on 10 June 2008 explained, ‘[T]he sharia police officers frequently apprehend girls who wear inappropriate clothes and couples found together in public and deserted places.’

Media provocation

From a legal perspective, the rise in khalwat vigilantism is quite troubling. Although national legislation, such as the recently passed Anti-Pornography Law, implicitly condones vigilantism, Qanun 14 on khalwat in Aceh explicitly states that citizens may not ‘main hakim sendiri’ (take the law into their own hands). Despite this legal stance, khalwat vigilantism is being promoted in many ways, including in media coverage of such cases in local newspapers.

Articles on khalwat vigilantism, like many other news stories in provincial newspapers, are highly sensationalised. The articles often read like detective stories, the vigilante neighbours cast in the role of moral heroes wiping away sin from their village or neighbourhood. In many cases, the community simply ‘runs out of patience’, as one newspaper put it, witnessing alleged khalwat crimes that inspire vigilante action.

The newspaper supported the vigilantes’ actions by glorifying their role in the story

In one Serambi Indonesia article on a khalwat case in May 2008, the reporter described a community’s determination to find evidence of khalwat after breaking into a neighbour’s house. At first, the vigilantes only found the woman, alone in her bedroom, wearing nothing but a sarong. But the vigilantes did not ‘lose their heads’. They searched the house from top to bottom until they found a young man hiding above the ceiling. Despite the violence that ensued, the newspaper supported the vigilantes’ actions by glorifying their role in the story.

Another case in May 2008 involving two Syiah Kuala University students caught having sex in a musalla (prayer room) on the IAIN Ar-Raniry campus received a lot of attention, both on campus and in the newspapers. The students were caught by a fellow university student who, as Serambi Indonesia reported, had been following them that particular afternoon out of ‘curiosity’ about what the couple was up to. The article set up the typical dichotomy of moral protector or vigilante versus sinner, reporting on the case almost exclusively from the perspective of the student who caught the couple. The young man involved explained that he didn’t ‘know why [he] was able to do something like that [commit khalwat]’. And the female student said that she simply ‘couldn’t deny the wishes’ of her boyfriend. Portraying them as morally weak served to suggest that these two young people were deserving of surveillance and supervision.

Ongoing surveillance

   A sign at Lapangan Tugu, Banda Aceh: ‘Attention: khalwat is
   strictly prohibited here.’
   Sarah J Newman

It is not just catching the suspected khalwat couples that is valued in Aceh. It is also important to keep up the monitoring of one’s village or neighbourhood. Neighbours will spy on a suspected couple until the early hours of the morning, just to confirm their suspicions, as a way of justifying their subsequent vigilante actions. Such was the case, as reported in Serambi Indonesia on 1 June 2008, when a few concerned neighbours waited outside a house until 4am so that they could catch the suspected couple ‘in the act’.

The authorities quoted in newspaper articles reflect almost unanimous support for this type of community surveillance. As the Human Relations Officer at the Office of Syariah Law in Banda Aceh stated in a Serambi Indonesia article of 5 June 2008, ‘violations can be minimised if all citizens are proactive’.

The promotion of community surveillance comes at a time when funding for the WH is very limited. As a result, many of their efforts have shifted away from enforcement to raising awareness and promoting surveillance at the village level.

Neighbours will spy on a suspected couple until the early hours of the morning, just to confirm their suspicions

In Banda Aceh, the guilt for khalwat crimes is often assumed to lie with outsiders - university students who come to the capital from elsewhere in the province for their studies, or ‘orang kampung’ (villagers) who come looking for work. This emphasis not only implies that the moral stain is from outside the community in question, but it also justifies vigilante actions as a way of protecting the local community.

It is also often the unrestrained sexuality of the woman that is seen as the reason for cases of khalwat. Women connected to khalwat cases are often described in very sexualised terms, emphasising their improper appearance or describing them as ‘naughty’. A WH officer in North Aceh said in a Serambi Indonesia article of 1 June 2008, that he hoped ‘citizens who have young, female children can watch over [these girls] more strictly so that religiously prohibited acts will no longer be committed’.

What seems to be common in informal conversations and newspaper articles alike is a focus on the immorality, but not the illegality, of khalwat. This distinction is important, because it is the focus on morality that promotes vigilantism, even though it is clearly prohibited by the legislation on khalwat in Aceh. Although it remains unclear what the implications of promoting vigilantism might be, this type of action potentially undermines the development of the democratic process in Aceh because it validates and encourages informal and often illegal forms of law enforcement.

This type of action validates and encourages informal and often illegal forms of law enforcement

Meanwhile, back on the Darussalam campuses, student life seems to be continuing as usual. Couples still spend their afternoons along the field, pretending to watch football. Every so often, I catch sight of a bold young couple who dare to hold hands. But generally, a strict distance is kept, as no-one ever knows when watchful eyes will see something that inspires vigilante action.     ii

Sarah Newman (sarahjnewman@gmail.com) is an Oberlin Shansi Fellow at Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh, lecturing in English.

Inside Indonesia 96: Apr-Jun 2009

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