Regional Syariah regulations in Aceh, permitted under special regional autonomy arrangements, are often referred to by their Acehnese name, Qanun. Mainstream media narratives around the drafting and implementation of Qanun consistently overlook the role of Acehnese women as agents in this process. During six months of fieldwork in Aceh between 2017 and 2019, I found that working with women’s advocates in Aceh challenged the mainstream account of women as one-dimensional ‘victims’ of Qanun.
Treating all Acehnese women as ‘victims’ of Qanun is easy, but it is also lazy and disingenuous in its failure to consider the significant role that women have had, and continue to have, in drafting, implementing and challenging Qanun in Aceh. Women are in fact strategic actors in the development of Acehnese law. Through looking at the agency and advocacy of Acehnese women, a different picture emerges that challenges worn-out misleading media depictions.
Pants, coffee and motorbikes
It must be noted that there are certainly Qanun that violate Indonesian constitutional standards, such as those around gender equality and non-discrimination. Well-known examples, from various sub-districts in Aceh, include women being prohibited from wearing pants, women not being allowed to sit alone in coffee shops with males (unrelated by blood or marriage) and women being banned from ‘straddling’ motorbikes. Such Qanun are controversial, and there is heated debate about their legitimacy both legally and religiously (although, for a number of reasons, these have never been successfully challenged in court).
Laws that regulate women’s behaviour, mobility or dress reflect how legislators understand the role of women in society – or, in other words, are an attempt to define (and sometimes confine) women’s roles. So, whether we are talking about Qanun relating to pants, coffee or motorbikes, we are talking about the role of women in Acehnese society – a conversation that should recognise the agency, advocacy and activism of Acehnese women.
Recently, a draft for a proposed Qanun Keluarga (Family Qanun) renewed debate on polygamy in Indonesia. The content of the Qanun largely reiterates the provisions of national laws regarding polygamy, namely the 1974 Marriage Law and the Compilation of Islamic Law. The notable difference between the national laws and the draft Qanun is that the latter proposes to grant the courts discretion over permission for a man to marry another woman without the permission of his wife or wives if certain prerequisites and conditions are met. The proposed exceptions to the requirement for consent would include, for example, circumstances where the first wife is suffering from an incurable illness or is unable to bear children.
This provision was immediately challenged by Acehnese women’s rights groups on the basis of this area of law already being sufficiently regulated by national law. It was argued that the draft Qanun provisions on the topic of polygamy should be removed to avoid repetition, or worse – contradiction. In their written advice to drafters, women’s groups also petitioned for the revocation of the consent loophole. In addition to undermining women’s equality in marriage, the move is seen as fundamentally contrary to the Marriage Law and, as such, potentially unconstitutional.
Women behind the scenes
The recent debate on polygamy is just one of many examples where Acehnese women’s groups have organised to advocate for protection of women’s rights during the drafting and implementation of Qanun. In the case of the draft Qanun Keluarga, the fruits of such advocacy are yet to be determined.
Another example of successful advocacy by women’s groups came earlier this year when a politician in Aceh proposed that a regional regulation should be made making virginity testing mandatory for women entering marriage (unless it is not the woman’s first marriage). This would undoubtedly violate women’s rights – discriminating by gender and relying on conservative demands around women’s purity and virtue. This proposal was defeated, however, by a coalition of Acehnese women’s NGOs before it was even made official. The reason you may not have heard of this in the news is because women’s groups acted swiftly and strategically to combat the proposed Qanun before it ever reached mainstream political discourse, let alone media.
Furthermore, Acehnese women’s groups have consistently mounted pressure against the Wilayahtul Hisbah, or so-called ‘Syariah Police’. Long-running criticism of the unit’s conduct, particularly with respect to women, has contributed to the unit being dissolved into the general Satpol-PP (the police). Although the Wilayahtul Hisbah still exists, its restructured and more limited form can be considered a win for advocates.
Behind the scenes, women’s groups in Aceh are hard at work – doing everything from undertaking technical and critical analysis of draft Qanun to developing strategies for promoting women’s interests during the socialisation and implementation phase. While mainstream media puts a lot of energy into decrying certain Qanun for victimising Acehnese women, little exposure is given to the actual work of Acehnese women. A conversation about women in Aceh is not complete without consideration of what women are doing as agents, advocates and activists, in particular their consistent contributions to and challenges against the drafting and implementation of Qanun.
Balawyn Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org, @balawynjones) is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at Melbourne Law School and a research fellow at the Institute for International Law and Humanities.