Indonesia: Islamic 'conservatism' on the rise in Aceh

Aceh is the only province where Sharia law is officially practiced in the country

Monday 29 July - The 'controversial' Islamic legal code was first introduced in 2001, after the capital, Jakarta, granted more autonomy to the region in an attempt to appease rebels who were waging a long-term insurgency.

After the agreement, movies and karaoke were prohibited and young people were increasingly faced with more restrictions. 

In Aceh, it is also more and more difficult to go dating, or get to know your crush. The punishments for those supposed offenders who decide to date or to have sexual relations go beyond a scolding by their parents or a simple warning from the authorities. Couples who are not married and are found hugging or just holding hands can be flogged dozens of times in public.

In January 2019, two 18-year-olds were flogged 17 times in front of a crowd of people in front of the mosque in the capital of the province, Banda Aceh, because they were caught hugging each other. In March, at least two women were also left unable to walk after a brutal public whipping for alleged 'intimate relations' outside marriage.

Consuming alcohol, sexual relations outside of marriage, adultery, and homosexuality are also sanctioned. The watchdog Human Rights Watch reported in 2017 that there had been more than 500 public floggings since 2015, when the punishment was introduced as part of the new Islamic penal code.

'Perhaps the worst part of this for young people is the public shame. The lashes are carried out in front of mosques, where large crowds gather and take pictures of people being punished by a hooded man armed with a rattan cane. The images then appear on social networks and in the newspapers, embarrassing these young people and their families.'

International human rights groups have repeatedly condemned this practice and even the president of Indonesia, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, has asked to end it on some occasions. But in Aceh, where 98 percent of its 5 million residents practice Islam, there is more support for the implementation of Sharia law.

Given the circumstances, it is not surprising that that people in Aceh 'are not familiar' with dating applications such as Tinder, according to Cut Famelia, a 28-year-old Acehnese. If two young people decide to meet, they have to do it in a crowded place, like a cafeteria, to share a non-alcoholic drink in order to avoid having problems with the religious police.

The restrictions that Acehnese face depends on where they live, and they are especially hard on women. 

A partial curfew was imposed in 2015 that dictated that women should be at home before 11 o’clock at night to “reduce sexual violence'. Venues including restaurants, sport centers, internet cafes, and tourist attractions not to serve women after 11 p.m., unless they were accompanied by their husbands or other male relative.

In another part of the province, in Bireuen district, a rule introduced in September 2018 forbids men and women from having dinner together unless they are married or related, to ensure that women 'behave better,' according to statements by a district official.

Another misogynistic restriction introduced in northern Aceh in 2013 banned women from straddling motorbikes, except in an 'emergency' case. The mayor of Lhokseumawe, the second largest city in the province, said that the ban was necessary because 'the curves of a woman’s body are more visible' if they travel in this way.

The most recent ban was in July of this year, when Islamic organizations and scholars denounced plans for a women’s soccer league in the region, because they said women playing soccer 'is forbidden' under Islamic law.

However, even younger generations support the Sharia law. According to Andreas Harsono, a researcher at Human Rights Watch based in Jakarta and author of Race, Islam and Power: Ethnic and Religious Violence in Post-Suharto Indonesia, many Acehnese young people believe that the Sharia law 'is their tradition and will keep them away from natural disasters like the tsunami.'

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