Wednesday, April 20, 2011


A common view in Aceh beaches: man with bare chest, woman covered up in veil.
I took this picture at Suak Ribe beach, Meulaboh, West Aceh district.

Yesterday afternoon I sat with a journalist friend. In between our talks about his works, suddenly he said, "I feel disturbed."
"Have you heard the story of that photographer?"
"Which one? The one caught for Sharia misconduct?"
"Yes. Do you know the details?"
Hesitating, I said no. I only read the news about disaster and local election.
"What happened to him?"
"It's not really about him that I think about. It's about the girl he photographed."

Living in Sharia-ruled Aceh since 2007 got me an understanding, that usually, when there is a woman involved in Sharia violation case, she would become the victim of further harassment. The perpetrators are usually the men involved in the raid. In most cases, those men were the community members, and in some other cases, they were the Sharia police known as Wilayatul Hisbah or the WH. Here I call those women 'the victims'. The sexual harassment can be very severe. In some reported cases, they ended up undressed the victims, touched them inappropriately, or even raped them.

So he summarized the story for me. That day, the photographer shot this 18 year-old girl in his amateur home studio. She was wearing a knee-length dress; a very appropriate dress in other culture, yet an indecent outfit in this Sharia-ruled culture. Suddenly the neighbours and WH rushed in. They accused the photographer and the model of doing inappropriate conducts. The accusation that was unacceptable in my friend's opinion, regarding that the photo session was also attended by the photographer's wife.

Anyway, in my observation, justice rarely speaks in Sharia-related cases here. Both photographer and the model were pleaded guilty. The executors have caned them last week. Even at this point of the story, I already feel the rage. What I heard later got me shocked, saddened, and disgusted.

Apparently, during the raid, a community leader - in front of the angry mob, harassed this girl. I have been thinking if I should tell the story exactly as it is, or make it milder using an abstract word of "harassment", "perverted sexual conducts", or "sexual abuse". But those are not enough to describe the horror of this community leader's conduct: he undressed her, grabbed her breasts, and inserted his fingers in her genital.

The victim's father was raged as he heard this confession. He decided to sue the community leader. The court proceeding started yesterday, ruled by a woman judge and a woman prosecutor. The victim was attended by a woman lawyer. In Indonesian law, the maximum sentence for rape is seven years in prison. Unfortunately, the definition of rape in our law is so outdated. It is limited to "involuntary genital-to-genital sexual intercourse perpetrated by a man towards a woman who is not his wife". It does not cover oral or anal sex, it does not cover inter-marital rape, it does not cover same sex rape. With this fundamental legal flaw, the prosecutor only charge a seven month in-prison punishment to the perpetrator!

My friend said he felt very disappointed.
"I'm a man, but I can put my feet in this girl's shoes. What would I feel? Hopeless. The woman NGO here seemed to just agree to that sentence. Seven month is nothing."
I threw my back against the sofa. I felt hurt to hear such injustice.

I know that the victim cannot really speak on behalf of herself. She is still depressed after the whole experience: raided, heavily molested, caned, and had none with strong legal stance to really back her up. Sadly, we have not seen any news about the harassment.

Understanding the common practices here, I can figure out why none seemed to have the will to speak up on behalf of this girl's pain. Speak up before the court, speak up before the media. Defending a Sharia law perpetrator is not a popular act here. When it comes to Sharia, it seems that we only have black-and-white choices. If we criticize the flaw, if we stand for the perpetrator, the majority of community would judge us as sinner. We would easily become the next person to harass. If you ever wonder why none seem to stand up and say no against such opression, this is enabled by the inactions of most Acehnese; permitted by the fear ordinary people have of being viewed as un-Islamic, should they speak out against, or take action, against any of the Sharia-based (or cultural-based, as often the society is involved) punishment. This subtle oppression is also encouraged by certain leaders who rally vigilantes and invent justifications.

This whole evening I cannot help but keeping on thinking of my thesis: an unfair positive law often creates a disadvantaging environment to the marginalized group. In terms of Sharia law in Aceh, many of its believers said that the law is to protect the dignity of human being. They said that women should cover themselves up to keep their, and men's dignity, to keep them away from inappropriate conducts. Instead of teaching people about the deeper surface of religion, about the peace and respect upon others, the laws have created a shallow understanding on human dignity. Dignity is indicated by the acts of praying x-times a day, wear some kinds of outfit, count the blessings like they are trading with God. Whether people understands the deeper meaning of the verses they read when they pray is still questionable.

Often, the enforcement of Sharia law results to the growing number or people who bluntly thinks that all uncovered women are women without dignity, thus they think that they have the RIGHTS to treat them whatever they like. For them, those women are considered as sinners, the worst kind of human being that they should crash. The law has open a great room for justifications, that (1) women are more prone to sinful conducts than men. They are potential sinner to punish.(2) Men and women do not have equal rights at all, and (3) As long as it is to fight "the sinful conducts", they are free to punish the perpetrators on the spot.

B, a friend with whom I often discuss about my uneasy feelings about Sharia wrote me his thoughts about this circumstances, "Acehnese society is enmeshed in a culture of spying and a subsequent removal of private space. This lingering, subtle oppression and its accoutrements are not something that is simply read about in the newspapers but not experienced in the ordinary days of women (and, to a lesser extent, men); visual representations, and overt demonstrations of piety, are imposed and noted..."But I cannot generalize Aceh that way either. I know many people who are against such oppression. I know many Acehnese who feel the same rage, disagreeing to that "culture of spying" and self-judging. My journalist friend is one good example. I know some wise ulemas who teach peaceful approaches too.

Anyway, the last few weeks, my personal and public list of oppression experiences goes longer. Four big guys stopped me around my office premise, prompting me why I didn't wear a veil, and they threatened me, "next time I see you uncovered again, I will punch you." Last weekend Sharia police raided some coffee shops, arresting some girls who did not wear Sharia-appropriate dresses.Meanwhile, they care less about the model versus molesting community leader case.

Speaking of ensuring human's dignity, speaking of justice in the most common sense, which one is worse - a woman without veil, or a man who undressed and molested a woman? What kind of justice is it?

A way to fight against oppression is speaking up and shows a courage that would resonate to those who disagree to the injustice that they are not alone. Speaking out loud that every men who think that they are free to molest, abuse, punish their community members think twice. Speak up and let people rethink about the meaning of dignity. That we cannot let such things happening again.

"You write the news, soon", I told my friend. "I'll help you spreading the words through social media. I believe we'll get some supports." I hope later the message will resonate to the silenced Acehnese and get them stand up for this case, and further, for other cases. I believe, such oppression in the society can only be conquered by its own society members.


  1. makes me sick to read...i guess all muslim societies in world are in sorta transition.,.,can't stay that way for long though, will have to turn one way or the other...hope for the best.

  2. Hi Mudassir,
    It's sick to read, as much as it's sick to live in such opressive, woman-degrading environment. Aceh is the only province in Indonesia applying Sharia laws as its option after obtaining its special autonomy status from Indonesian government. Most people in Aceh still seem to be proud of being the only place where Sharia law is enforced. However as happens in many other Sharia-ruled place, there are obvious injustice towards women. Aceh is actually a nice place to live. Unfortunately those kind of incidents hurt the beauty of the living and leave some trauma. It takes its own people to uprise.