Aceh: Women, poor suffer under 'Islamic law'

A rising moral vigilantism that has flared with the gradual implementation of Islamic law in Aceh has victimized women and the poor, according to the International Crisis Group.
Enforcing Islamic or Sharia law has also created murky divisions of labor between roaming squads of vice police and ordinary police that may pose longer-term security difficulties.
Aceh, which was gripped by a 29-year separatist conflict that ended formally last year after the province was lashed by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, is the only part of Indonesia with the legal right to apply Sharia law.

While it has long been a staunchly Muslim heartland, since 1999 it has slowly put in place an institutional framework for Sharia enforcement. Islamic courts were given approval to extend their reach to criminal justice in 2001, when a special autonomy law was passed.

Today caning and fines are used as punishments for the consumption and sale of alcohol, gambling and illicit relations between men and women.

While Sharia officials believe that strict enforcement will help bring broader goals like peace, reconstruction, and reconciliation, the ICG said that officials tasked with codifying it are "inadvertently producing something different."

This, the group said, was "a religious bureaucracy committed to its own expansion; a focus on legislating and enforcing morality; and a quiet power struggle with secular law enforcement that may have long-term implications for both security sector and legal reform in Aceh."

"There's a wide gulf between the popularity of Islamic law in principle and the unpopularity of how it's being enforced," ICG Southeast Asia project director Sidney Jones said in a statement. "But for many, that may be beside the point: the real issue is whether man's law or God's will prevail."

The most problematic institution set up under Islamic law has been the wilayatul hisbah (WH), the vice and virtue patrol tasked with monitoring compliance with Sharia, the ICG said.

"Its members are highly unpopular; even those who support broader application of Sharia in Aceh acknowledge that the WH are poorly recruited and trained," the report said.

It cautioned that donors may be unwilling to continue funding police reform in Aceh if the WH plays a more active role.

In one incident, the WH seized three female activists attending a UN Development Program workshop in Banda Aceh for not wearing headscarves - which are not a tradition in Aceh - as they chatted outside their hotel rooms late one evening in February.

They were forced to sign statements admitting their guilt and to listen to a 45-minute lecture on the need to live according to Sharia.

"Women complain that they are disproportionately the targets of WH raids, with far more operations against them for not wearing jilbabs than against men for not attending Friday prayer," the ICG said.

"The sense is high in Aceh that women and the poor are the primary target of Sharia enforcement, even as support for expanding Sharia seems to remain strong particularly in rural areas."

The report also noted that WH's existence encouraged citizens to report their friends and neighbors.

"Not only does this give a new status to the local gossip, but it leads to a kind of religion vigilantism, with conservative Muslim groups taking enforcement into its own hands," it said.

July 31, 2006, AFP