May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Women and syariah in Aceh

(Michael Renner/Flickr)
Published: Jul 26, 2007

Suraiya Kamaruzzaman

Islamic law (syariah) is not the answer to the war in Aceh. Although the implementation of syariah was linked to government efforts to resolve the Aceh ‘problem’, it does not address the root cause of the conflict, namely Aceh’s relationship to the central government.

Moreover, as long as the implementation of syariah in Aceh remains confined to symbolism, women will continue to be the primary targets of anti-vice campaigns carried out by both military and civilian authorities.

Symbolic Islamic law?

The initiative for the special law allowing Aceh to formally adopt syariah came from former President B. J. Habibie. Based on the recommendation of H. Usman Hasan, Habibie’s chief advisor on the conflict in Aceh, the Habibie government proposed syariah as a means of resolving the decades-long conflict in the province. It was hoped that this gift would help to heal the wounds caused by the injustices Aceh had suffered. The response in the Acehnese community varied: some were indifferent, while others welcomed the move. Yet neither the Habibie government nor its successors have provided clear practical guidelines for implementing syariah in Aceh.

After the proposal to implement syariah in Aceh was announced in 1999, the physical symbols of Islam became the focus of various campaigns. Signs on public and private offices were changed to Arabic lettering and women were instructed to wear jilbab (Islamic headscarf). Banners and leaflets declared several locations to be ‘compulsory jilbab areas’ and all government and private agencies, schools and tertiary institutions made it obligatory for women to wear jilbab.

In the absence of a formal legal body during this period, many people took the enforcement of Islamic law into their own hands. Sweepings and inspections to find women not wearing jilbab were carried out by talibaný(Islamic student) groups, university students, female police officers and unknown armed groups. Every male or person of ‘power’ felt that they had the right to judge women. During these inspections, women were subjected to various forms of violence. Some had their heads shaved, others were beaten or forced to march in public, pelted with tomatoes or eggs in the market, yelled at or had the tight clothing they were wearing torn or their jeans slashed to above the knees.

During a radio talk show on the effects of the implementation of syariah in Aceh on women, I said, ‘This is Arabisation, not Islamisation, so when will Aceh’s officials exchange their cars for camels, so that things can be exactly like they are in the Arab world’? The telephone lines immediately filled with angry callers. My point was simply to highlight that in a narrow interpretation of syariah, women are invariably the first victims.

The events that occurred in Aceh in mid to late 1999 are reminiscent of the experiences of women elsewhere in the world. In Iran, the public freedom of women was restricted after the Islamic revolution of 1978-79. Ironically, women had been amongst the strongest supporters of the revolution. Similarly, in Afghanistan women were confined to their homes once the Taliban gained power. There were no exceptions, even for women who had provided their family’s livelihood. Does a similar fate await Aceh’s women?

If implementing syariah, even in a narrow sense, would mean an end to the conflict, I believe that every woman in Aceh would willingly wear jilbab. Women in Aceh have played an important role in Aceh’s political struggle since colonial times. Yet there are no records of the head coverings of women causing problems in the past. The heroines of Aceh’s political struggle, including Cut Nyak Dien, Cut Í Meutia and a host of other prominent women, wore their hair in the rolled up style unique to Aceh, with a shawl dangling and covering only part of the hair. To the present day, this hair bun is known as ‘ok sanggoi Cut Nyak Dien’ (Cut Nyak Dien’s hair bun).


Syariah received official recognition in Aceh with the introduction of Law No 44/1999 under Abdurrahman Wahid’s presidency. This law gave Aceh the right to determine matters relating to religious and cultural affairs, education, and the role of ulama (religious scholars). President Megawati further strengthened the position of syariah with the introduction of Law No 18/2001, granting Aceh special autonomy as the province of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam (NAD). Syariah then received further legislative support through Regional Regulation No 5/2001.

Although the regulation simply listed matters that must be administered ‘in accordance with syariah’, the Aceh provincial legislature has since ratified five further regulations on syariah courts, Islamic worship, liquor, gambling and indecency. The contents of these five regulations suggest that in Aceh, the implementation of syariah is focused on the rules of individual worship. This may explain the emphasis on symbolic matters so far.

During a ceremony to mark the implementation of syariah, the provincial governor Abdullah Puteh declared all offices in the province to be aurat-covered areas. Men and women alike must now cover their bodies according to the standards set by Islam. The governor also ordered that prayers be conducted as a congregation and forbade all forms of vice in Aceh, including gambling, prostitution and alcohol. Customers of hotels and salons in Aceh are now forbidden from receiving guests of the opposite sex apart from their relatives. Inspections are regularly conducted to ensure compliance.

Interestingly, it has not only been ulama and the regional government who have been involved in the administration of syariah in Aceh. The police and the military have also participated. For instance, in September 2003, the Regional Military Emergency Authority (Penguasa Darurat Militer Daerah, PDMD), Major General Endang Suwarya, sent a telegram to all regents and mayors in Aceh, appealing to them to assist in supervising the implementation of syariah in their respective districts. The PDMD also requested that all traders cease their activities and that traffic on thoroughfares stop half an hour before the Friday prayer. He also called for all families, particularly women, to wear Muslim dress.

The PDMD’s ‘appeal’ was interpreted in a broad sense. The regent of Aceh Tamaing, Drs H. Abdul Latief, for example, threatened to remove any district head (camat) in his regency who failed to eliminate gambling, prostitution and other forms of vice.

So-called jilbab inspections have also been conducted on a regular basis by a variety of groups. On 24 January 2004, hundreds of personnel from the Banda Aceh City Police conducted an inspection to ensure that women were complying with proper Islamic dress standards. The wives of high-ranking officials have also conducted their own jilbab inspections, and have handed out jilbab to passers-by who are not wearing one.

In another inspection conducted in six locations in Banda Aceh on 2–3 March 2004, around 200 women were found to be either not wearing a jilbab or wearing tight clothing. The inspection was carried out by a group known as the Syariah Supervisors (Wilayatul Hisbab, WH) in cooperation with the Banda Aceh City Police. Wilayatul Hisbab was formed on 23 February 2003 as a legal body to assist police in enforcing Islamic law. As syariah police, Wilayatul Hisbab’s task is to process offenders and then surrender their dossiers to the syariah court.

Syariah in Aceh provides for three steps to be taken against repeat offenders, for example a woman who continues to not wear jilbab. The initial stage is a written warning. This is followed by a second written warning, after which the matter is referred to the syariah court. The offender’s details, including name, age and address, are entered into a database to be used as a reference for subsequent legal processes. Punishments include lashes or a fine.

Sex workers have also been the target of recent campaigns. The Indonesian Armed Forces Operational Commander, Major General Bambang Darmono, has stated that he will ‘drive out sex workers from Lhokseumawe and the rest of Aceh’. The head of the North Aceh district legislature (who is also an ulama), Tengku Saifuddin Ilyas, has supported this move, and has publicly stated that sex workers ‘sow the seeds of filth’. The Banda Aceh City Police have also recently arrested 12 sex workers and several of their male customers in hotels.

This approach fails to recognise that women do not become sex workers by choice. In social, moral and economic terms, commercial sex workers are victims. By rounding up, arresting and punishing these women in the name of religion and morality, the authorities are neglecting to address the root causes of prostitution: poverty and low levels of education.

There are between 400–500 sex workers in and around Banda Aceh. According to the executive director of the Youth Sovereignty Foundation (Yayasan Daulat Remaja), an organisation which assists commercial sex workers, almost all of them come from a background of economic hardship. Many are victims of the conflict who turned to prostitution after their houses were burnt or their parents killed. Some are rape victims. Over 100 sex workers have registered with the foundation in the hope of gaining education and other skills. However, because its funds are limited, Yayasan Daulat Remaja is only able to assist 20 of these.

Ironically, while sex workers have been targeted in these recent campaigns, corrupt government officials have been given free rein. Clean government has yet to become a focus of Islamic law in Aceh. In recent months, numerous cases of corruption have been exposed, but this has been on the initiative of the Regional Military Emergency Authority, not as an aspect of the implementation of syariah.

Building Aceh’s future

If syariah was intended as a solution to the conflict in the province then its focus should have been law enforcement (particularly against human rights offenders), clean and democratic government, the development of a people-based economy and addressing critical environmental issues. Instead, those interpreting Islamic law — ulama, the military and civilian authorities — have emphasised matters of individual worship. As a result, the implementation of syariah in Aceh has focussed on issues such as women not wearing jilbab, as well as people not performing the Friday prayer or not fasting during Ramadan.

Aceh’s ulama and academics were not ready to translate syariah and Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) into operational positive law. Comprehensive legal constructs that answer the challenge of social change have not been established. The result is that the regional regulations that have been ratified to date do not address the fundamental issues involved in conflict resolution in Aceh.

Aceh’s people have suffered greatly from the prolonged military conflict. Today, the military presence in Aceh remains strong, with police, army, and militia troops as well as the additional personnel deployed as part of the military operation that began in May 2003. The inspections carried out by the 2500 syariah police employed to enforce Islamic law, and the intervention of the military in religious matters, are contributing to what is an already over-militarised society. Moreover, women have been the first targets.

It is time for the regional government and religious figures in Aceh to listen to the voice of Aceh’s women. Women can make a valuable contribution to Aceh’s future. They should be consulted in the process of drafting regulations which govern the implementation of syariah in Aceh, particularly those which affect women directly. The experience of formulating the first draft of Islamic law, where only one woman was involved, is enough.

Aceh has much to learn from the example of Malaysian Prime Minister Muhammad Badawi. Badawi advocates an Islam based on progressive concepts which will help to establish a tolerant, inclusive and modern environment compatible with democracy; not an Islam interpreted in a literal, rigid, and exclusive sense that is oriented to the past. Only this kind of progressive Islam oriented to the present and the future can carry the Islamic community forward with dignity and respect, both for themselves and for other people. Why not learn from him?

Suraiya Kamaruzzaman ( is the chair of the executive board of Flower Aceh and a member of the National Oversight Board of the Union of Women’s Solidarity.

Inside Indonesia 79: Jul - Sep 2004


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