West Aceh, Indonesia: New regulation forbidding the wearing of 'tight clothing’ by women may be open to abuse

The Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women and the International Solidarity Network, Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) are jointly concerned about the issuance of a new regulation in the district of West Aceh, Indonesia, which strictly forbids Muslims, especially women, to wear tight clothes. The new regulation was issued on Thursday, 27 May 2010, by the Head of the district of West Aceh. Non-Muslims who reside in West Aceh or are temporarily present in West Aceh are also required to respect and to adapt to the new regulation. This new regulation makes West Aceh the first district in the country to strictly implement an ‘Islamic’ dress code and if signed by the Provincial Governor would eventually be enforced in the entire province of Aceh.

Please see attached two sample letters (at bottom of page)

Those caught breaking the law the first time will be reprimanded and advised on how to dress appropriately. Repeat offenders will be subjected to the ta’zir penalty which under shariah law could be interpreted as a sentence involving a corporal punishment usually given to those charged with assault. This punishment can range from the very mild to harsh. It could mean being caned once to dozens of times. The shariah court decides how many times the offender should be caned depending on how serious it deems the violation to have been. Government and private offices are also instructed to refuse services to those who violate the dress code. 

National and international newspapers reported that raids were conducted on the same day that the new regulation came into force. Eighteen women travelling on motorbikes who were wearing traditional headscarves, but were also dressed in jeans (which is more convenient when travelling by motorbike), were apprehended by the religious police. Each of them was given a long skirt and their trousers confiscated. They were released from police custody after giving their identities and receiving advice from Islamic preachers.

The Context

A report by the Indonesian National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) reveals that, since the beginning of the reformasi era until 2009, as many as 154 local regulations (peraturan daerah or perda; in Aceh qanun) were enacted which stand in clear violation of the 1945 Constitution. All of them (with the exception of one, which invokes the New Testament) refer to the shariah as the source of legitimacy. Nineteen (19) of these regulations were issued at the provincial level, one hundred and thirty four (134) were district bylaws, and one (1) was issued by village authorities. Sixty three (63) of these were found to discriminate against women, including the twenty one (21) regulations on ‘Muslim’ dress code.

In 2003, Aceh province opened its first shariah court, which introduced and enforced laws based on Islamic teachings. These laws cover almost all elements of life in the province, including obligating Muslim women to wear a jilbab (a long, loose-fitting coat which covers the entire body except the hands, feet, face and head). Under the laws, any Muslim found eating, drinking or selling food during sunlight hours in the fasting month of Ramadan, as with the more serious charge of adultery, could be sentenced to a public caning or fines. Acehnese civil society groups reported numerous incidents whereby punishments of those found to have violated the shariah law were carried out by members of the community. The enforcement of the recent law on adultery, which is punishable by stoning, was only suspended because of the refusal by the Provincial governor to sanction it after a wide-range of public protests from Aceh, other parts of Indonesia and abroad. 

Our Concerns 

SKSW and WLUML have long challenged the pervasive perception, in Muslim and non-Muslim contexts alike, that Islam prescribes one acceptable way for women to dress. Historical records have shown a rich diversity in clothing worn by women from Muslim communities. Muslim women’s choices of clothing are shaped by many factors including: class, regional and ethnic identities, occupation, urban/rural location, age and marital status, local and state politics, fashion, and climate. In many periods of history, including in contemporary times, religious identity may not always be distinctively marked by dress. Asma Jahangir, the current UN Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Religion or Beliefs, has noted that the "use of coercive methods and sanctions applied to individuals who do not wish to wear religious dress or a specific symbol seen as sanctioned by religion" indicates "legislative and administrative actions which typically are incompatible with international human rights law".

Countries where dress codes are imposed often invoke morality and safety as justifications for their actions. We do not believe, however, that these laws make society and, especially women, safe. While such regulations may affect men and women from all social classes, they bear heavily on women and particularly those whose work requires less clothing restrictions that would allow them to move freely and carry out their tasks more efficiently. Dress-codes also speak to an underlying desire to control women’s sexuality and bodily autonomy through restrictions on their clothing. These laws potentially impair women’s ability to participate in public life on an equal basis with men. 

Dress codes regulations also subject women to harsh and arbitrary policing, summary justice which violates their fair trial rights and right to be free from torture, as well as imposing cruel and degrading punishments. Policing of women’s dress could lead to the ‘morality police’ having the license to violate women’s privacy on the pretext of upholding the provisions of this regulation. All these constitute a form of gender-based violence and discrimination against women.

What you can do 

1. Please write to the Provincial Governor of Aceh and to the Parliament of Aceh (Dewan Perwakial Rakyat Aceh), whose addresses are provided below, urging them to do everything in their power to withdraw the new regulation for the following reasons: 

  • The regulation is inconsistent with internationally guaranteed rights, signed and ratified by Indonesia, which prohibit discrimination based on gender. Indonesia has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which prohibits the use of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Article 7), obliges the State to respect the right to counsel (Article 14), the right to privacy (Article 17) and protects freedom of expression (Article 19). Indonesia has the obligation to respect and ensure these rights, and to do so in a nondiscriminatory manner, as set forth in Article 2.
  • Human rights violations were found to have been committed in countries that have similar laws imposing restrictive dress codes and rules of conduct based on religious laws, and the threats of sexual harassment of women by the morality police are very real. Regulating women’s bodies under the pretext of safeguarding ‘decency’ and ‘morality’ and preserving discriminatory traditions gives wide powers to police officers to invade individuals’ personal lives. The Charter of the Rights of Women in Aceh (Piagam Hak-Hak Perempuan di Aceh) guarantees, that “[w]omen in Aceh shall have the right to freedom from discrimination, intimidation and violence” (Article 3).
  • Indonesia, including Aceh, is a country of very rich, diverse cultures. The imposition of a dress code on its citizens intrudes upon the basic rights and freedoms of non-Muslims to choose how they want to express themselves in terms of their clothing. 
  • The Provincial Government of Aceh, particularly the Governor, has the responsibility to review, monitor and evaluate the implementation of local laws in Aceh and must ensure that these do not lead to abuses by any individual or groups. There should be guidelines from the Office of the Governor to local authorities which would ensure that the drafting and enforcement of local laws are respectful of the rights of others.   

Address your letters to:

Irwandi Yusuf, Governor of Aceh Province at the Governor’s Office

Jalan Teungku Nyak Arief

Banda Aceh

Fax : +62 651 51091/53676

CC. to:

1. Tgk. Hasbi Abdullah, Head of Aceh Parliament (Dewan Perwakilan  Rakyat Aceh)

        Jalan Tengku Daud Beuerueh Banda Aceh 

        Fax: +62 651 21638

        Email : mediacenter@dpra.nad.go.id


2. Regent Of Aceh Barat Regency

        Jalan Gajah Mada No. 1

        Kelurahan  Driem Rampak

        Meulaboh – Aceh Barat

Tel/Fax: +62 655 7551162

2. Please also write to the district authorities of Western Aceh (Aceh Barat) to withdraw the law on dress codes based on the following considerations:

  • Having a law on dress codes does not make a society, especially its female members, safe. Regulating women’s freedoms of movement and expression through the dress code in the name of safeguarding ‘decency’ and ‘morality’ gives wide powers to private individuals and the morality police, which could violate women’s rights including leaving them vulnerable to threats of sexual abuse. 
  • The Western Aceh District authorities have the responsibility to uphold the Charter of the Rights of Women in Aceh (Piagam Hak-Hak Perempuan di Aceh), which states that “[w]omen in Aceh shall have the right to freedom from discrimination, intimidation and violence” (Article 3).
  • The Western Aceh District authorities also have the responsibility to ensure that any law that is issued at the district level respects the basic dignity of the human being – a principle that is upheld both under shariah law and in Indonesian Constitution and laws. 

Address your letters to:

1. Ishak Yusuf, Head of West Aceh Parliament 

        The District of West Aceh

        Jalan Sulthan Iskandar, Muda No.1. Meulaboh

        Fax: +62 655 7551033

2.   Ramli. MS, Regent (Bupati) of West Aceh

      The House of Regent

      Jalan Gajah Mada, Meulaboh 

      Fax: +62 651 22001/23041

      Email: humas_acehbarat[at]yahoo.com

WLUML/SKSW Networkers
Sample letter_Governor of Aceh_cc. Parliament of Aceh & Regent.doc39.5 KB
Sample letter_Head of Parliament & House of Regent.doc37.5 KB