The adoption of strict Islamic law in Indonesia’s semi-autonomous Aceh province has delivered brutal public canings to punish the selling of alcohol, unwed couples spending time alone together and homosexuality. By Martin Goettske.

Sharia in Aceh

Erlinawati Shi of Banda Aceh’s sharia police.
Erlinawati Shi of Banda Aceh’s sharia police.

There’s an ear-piercing screech as the loudspeakers mounted on the green jeep are turned on. “Go towards the mosque. It’s time for prayer,” commands a female voice. “Close all shops.”

It’s Friday in Banda Aceh, the capital of Indonesia’s Aceh province on the northern tip of Sumatra, and calls for midday prayer emanate from the mosques. Businesses and restaurants are required to close. All outdoor socialising must end.

In the back of the jeep sit six women all wearing green uniforms and green veils. They are officers of the so-called sharia police, sent on to the streets to uphold strict religious observance.

“We secure peace in society,” says Erlinawati Shi as she and her colleagues gesture towards business owners who haven’t yet shut their doors. The squad fans into restaurants where men still enjoy their lunch. “Come on, time to leave,” the women announce, gesturing towards the exit.

Shi studied sharia, or Islamic law, at university and joined the police force “to serve Allah”, she says, and to make her city safer for women. Later in the day she’s out on patrol making sure women wear veils covering their hair and neck and that they respect the ban on tight trousers.

“It’s for the benefit of the women,” she says. “A man doesn’t get tempted if he doesn’t see female curves. It prevents crime.”

Women who don’t abide by the dress code risk being taken aside, scolded and humiliated. But there are more severe punishments for breaking Aceh’s Islamic criminal code, which was enacted in 2014 after the gradual adoption of aspects of sharia over many years and has been fully enforced since 2015. Aceh is Indonesia’s sole province under strict Islamic rule.

One of the first laws required women to wear a hijab in public. Within the past few years “immoral acts” have also been criminalised. These include selling alcohol, gambling, unmarried couples sitting together unaccompanied, homosexual acts and adultery. The punishment for these crimes is public caning, which for adultery and homosexuality can constitute 100 lashes, with a possible prison sentence in addition. Recently, two men, aged 20 and 23, were publicly caned 83 times each after becoming the first to be sentenced for homosexual acts under Aceh’s sharia law. They had been caught having sex by vigilantes who forcibly entered one of the men’s residences.

Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country, elsewhere observes what is considered a moderate version of Islam. Although Aceh has traditionally been more religiously conservative, the introduction of sharia has significantly changed the lives of the province’s five million inhabitants.

“I grew up without sharia,” remembers Musman Aziz, a 42-year-old employee of a telecommunications company in Banda Aceh. “When I was young in the ’90s it was a more free and lively place. There were discos, parties, music and cinema. It’s all gone and now it’s very quiet here.”

Almost all – 98 per cent – of Banda Aceh’s population are Muslims, according to the latest census, in 2005. Like the policewoman Erlinawati Shi, Mairul Hazami, the head of Banda Aceh’s department of sharia, the government agency responsible for effecting Islamic law, says sharia protects Muslims from committing sinful acts.

“Aceh has become more virtuous, more peaceful, more respectful and more harmonious after implementation of sharia,” he says.

Nevertheless, the practice of caning offenders has drawn fierce criticism. According to Human Rights Watch, 339 people were caned in Aceh in 2016. A hooded sharia official wielding a metre-long rattan cane metes out the punishment in front of crowds that often shout abuse at the offender.

“It’s a kind of shock therapy,” says Syahrizal Abbas, former head of Aceh’s provincial sharia department. “The aim is to educate people and show them what kind of behaviour is not acceptable to society.”

Recently witnesses reported a 27-year-old man lost consciousness after having been struck eight times with a cane. He was carried off the public platform but as soon as a doctor gave his approval, he was caned another 14 times.

“It constitutes a cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment and can amount to torture,” an Amnesty International spokesperson said in a statement.

Hazami says Aceh’s rules – such as the one making veils mandatory – are in place to protect women.

“Women are weak,” he says, and points to a glass bowl on his office table that is filled with hard candy in individual wrappers. “Unwrapped candy gets dirty easily,” he says, “and the same is the case for women that are not covered up.”

Marisa, a women’s rights activist in Aceh whose name is withheld for her protection, unsurprisingly disapproves of this view of women. “The men that made the rules here have a distorted sense of how women have to look, but in Aceh women still have to accept the law of the men. Otherwise they will be humiliated.”

When Marisa was young, in the 1990s, she voluntarily wore a veil. But when the law required it to be worn she reacted in defiance. “I chose to wear the veil because it’s beautiful and not because some man told me to wear it,” she says. “So I took off the veil when they forced me to wear it. The veil should be chosen willingly and shouldn’t be a symbol that a woman has lost control over her own body.”

Nevertheless, a veil is now a constant part of her attire, as she would otherwise get into trouble daily. “The fact is that sharia has weakened women’s position in relation to men.”

Aceh began incorporating sharia into its law after decades of armed struggle for independence ended in a peace agreement with the Indonesian government in 2005. Aceh was awarded a high degree of autonomy, including the right to adopt sharia.

The agreement was reached after the earthquake and tsunami of December 2004 halted fighting between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement rebels. In Aceh alone, about 160,000 people were killed when the massive wave inundated huge areas of land. Most buildings were destroyed but many mosques survived. In Aceh, some saw the disaster as a sign from the heavens.

“Many saw the catastrophe as Allah’s punishment for them not having been sufficiently devout,” says Hazami. The fear of being cataclysmically punished again for not being adequately God-fearing amplified popular acceptance of stricter religious laws.

The provincial government’s policy is to make sharia take on an ever-expanding role in society. “We wish that sharia is implemented in all areas of life,” says Syahrizal Abbas.

Radical Islamic groups, whose popular support has recently grown, express hope that sharia in Aceh will serve as an example and pave the way for Islamic law in the rest of the country.

“Aceh must be the locomotive for the effort to apply sharia in all of Indonesia,” said Rizieq Shihab, the fundamentalist leader of Islamic Defenders Front, in a speech in December.

Non-Muslim minorities in Aceh have had to adapt. In theory they are permitted to choose between the normal civil court system and the sharia court. However, last year a 60-year-old Christian woman became the first non-Muslim to be caned. She was flogged 30 times for having sold alcohol.

There are 5000 to 6000 ethnic Chinese in Banda Aceh. One of them is 52-year-old Kho Khie Siong, the head of the local Chinese cultural association. “For us Chinese, sharia is not that frightening. Banda Aceh is a very safe place 24 hours a day as no one drinks alcohol,” he says. “Chinese are pragmatic. Several that were convicted of gambling or selling alcohol have chosen to get caned, as it’s done with quicker than a prison term.”

But whether there is general support for sharia is difficult to ascertain, as the debate is sensitive.

“Many critical voices are pushed out of Aceh or simply choose to move away out of fear for their own safety,” says Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch.

Marisa, the women’s rights activist, has in the past been accused of being an infidel, a Jew and a liberal. On social media some have said she deserved to be raped.

“Many women are scared of getting punished,” she says. “If you talk of women’s rights, you’re often accused of being a secularist and being in collusion with the West.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2017 as "Morals law".

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Martin Goettske is a Danish journalist based in Beijing.

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