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In Indonesia’s Aceh, Islamic Sharia Law Is Applied Harshly And Hypocritically

More so than elsewhere in Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic nation, the province of Aceh adheres to the strict precepts of Sharia law. If caught by the religious police, residents face public flogging and prison. Still, the rich have ways ar

Banda Aceh, Indonesia
Banda Aceh, Indonesia
Anne-Fleur Delaistre

ACEH -- The sunset along the coast makes this a particularly romantic spot for dozens of couples sitting intertwined on the rocks along the beach. But these young people are here illegally.

In Aceh, an Indonesia province on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, their behavior is vigorously punished by Islamic law. For their crime, called khalwat, an unmarried man and woman risk nine lashes with a stick. If the religious police surprise one of these couples in flagrante, officers will demand the offenders get married on the spot.

Sharia law pertaining to family rights has been in place in all of Indonesia since 1991, but Aceh is a separate case. It has been home to Muslims since the 13th century and, in 2001, Islamic law was appended to the penal code.

Sharia is a series of principles that guide Muslims in their daily lives by regulating private life. It also provides punishments for infractions of the penal code. In Aceh, contrary to the rest of Indonesia, Sharia also calls for corporal punishment.

Aceh emerged a decade ago from nearly 30 years of civil war between the central government in Jakarta and independence fighters. "Sharia was born during the war," says Tamir, a representative of one of the only political parties calling for Sharia to be withdrawn.

"Jakarta wanted to placate the separatist tendencies by granting Sharia to our very pious region. But it was done out of desperation," he added. "The local male politicians accepted it as a way to pressure and exercise repression over the population, and residents stayed quiet in the vast silence after the war. They used the worst arguments to manipulate the people: fear and religion."

Regulating all aspects of life

Last year, Islamic tribunals sentenced 500 people, the majority for inappropriate contact between an unmarried man and woman. Among them was a married woman named Amel, who was suspected of too-close relations with a man in the village. The villagers contacted the Sharia police, and the two offenders were flogged in a public square in front of the village mosque.

"We even served sweets to the public – it was a form of entertainment. This Sharia, it's folklore," says Farabi, who is concerned about victims of Islamic law. A double punishment was handed down to Amel, who was presumed guilty and ostracized by her village.

Sharia law also forbids women from singing and dancing, which are judged to be overly amorous. "Sharia is very difficult for women to adhere to, as it applies to all areas of life: clothing, behavior in public, a way of being around men, a curfew at night," says Donna, the director of the Solidaritas Perempuan association. A believer as well as a fervent feminist, Donna does not wear the obligatory veil, despite numerous arrests and reprimands.

Residents of Aceh are reluctant to openly criticize Sharia. "You can't say you're against it because that would mean you are against religion," says a woman named Leila. After talking to people for a while, however, tongues start to loosen. "In elementary school, the veil has become obligatory since the Sharia was implemented, including for young girls," says a teacher who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear that the mild critique could invite repercussions.

"It is very discriminatory. Imagine all the women who work on the mountain slopes in the coffee fields with their obligatory long robes. These clothes are a source of accidents," said Khainan, 25, who admits to fearing God less than she fears the police. Her biggest worry is the shame of being beaten in front of his family in case of an infraction.

Fearing the police more than God

On Friday, noon spurs the call to prayer and the obligatory visit to the mosque. Appointments are cut short; everyone hurries on their scooters or in their trucks. Anyone happening to stroll by this holy place at this time will be punished. From a distance, one can distinguish the khaki uniforms of the religious police. The patrols of the Wilayatul Hisbah, a special police force, watch over the proceedings. They also track down drinkers and gamblers.

Cinemas have disappeared in Aceh for promoting intimate contact between the sexes. "Yes, but people can watch movies in the comfort of their homes with their wife or wives," deadpans the dean of the Islamic law faculty, in reference to the fact that polygamy is permitted by law.

Still, the region has opened up since the tsunami of December 2004. Hundreds of foreigners came to help a devastated population. Their freedoms and way of life helped to soften the application of Sharia. "The law is more tolerant today than 10 years ago, especially in the cities," says Ibu Nursiti, professor of Islamic law, pointing out the rare woman who is not veiled from the terrace of a cafe. "Some years ago, when a woman was not veiled, her head would be shaved."

Seven years after the catastrophe, NGOs and the foreigners they brought have left. The slight loosening of Quranic laws seems to have endured – except for in some remote rural areas – but the threat of radicalization still looms. Some Islamist parties wish for a law that more conforms with the precepts of the prophet.

"That is what parliament wanted in voting for an article that called for the amputation of the hand for rapists and the stoning to death of adulterous lovers," explains al-Yasa, the father of Sharia in Aceh. The text is no longer applicable today because the province's governor refused to sign it. "But if a more conservative governor is elected next February, he will," predicts Andra, a supporter of the liberal opposition party Golkar.

The population may dread the radicalization of Sharia, but above all it criticizes the unjust application of the religious law. "It is widely known that rich residents of Aceh drink alcohol and go to parties in Jakarta to meet women," says Oumati.

At least one claim can be verified: In the airplane that flies back to the capital on Friday evenings, the head coverings are removed, with beautifully coiffed women looking into pocket mirrors, powdering their faces.

Read more from Le Temps in French

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