By Iwan Dzulvan Amir
June 16 2015
Once again, Aceh has become a national laughingstock and an international embarrassment. After various controversial bylaws, such as the prohibition an women to dance, to straddle when sitting in the back of motorcycles and to ride a motorcycle with a man who is not muhrim (related by blood), the ban of keyboard entertainment and separation of classes for male and female students in schools, now the provincial capital of Banda Aceh has issued a regulation in the form of a mayoral instruction that prohibits women from being outside their homes after 11 p.m.
The regulation aims to protect women from sexual harassment and abuse, which according to human rights groups have reached an alarming level in Aceh.
However, reacting to the rise of such abuse that annually numbers in the hundreds by punishing 2.5 million women in Aceh is extremely excessive as well as blaming the victims. There are other ways to deal with the matter, including by increasing security for women, improving rights education for men, better policing, etc.
When pressed to explain herself by the media, Mayor Illiza Saaduddin Djamal claimed to have merely implemented Gubernatorial Decree No. 2/2014 signed by Governor Zaini Abdullah on Feb. 28, 2014, which restricts nighttime activities in cafés and cybercafés.
The decree includes prohibition of late-night service for women without muhrim in these venues. Somewhere along the way, the prohibition was extended to general work and travel for women.
The gubernatorial decree itself only states that its legal basis is Bylaw (Perda) No.5/2000 on the implementation of sharia in Aceh. This bylaw — a product of pure politics during armed conflict times — has consistently become a blanket justification for all sorts of ridiculous regulations in the province.
Basically, lawmakers in Aceh can create any by-law and get away with it as long as they brand it as shari (sharia-compliant) without having to consult the proper stakeholders targeted by the by-law.
Indeed, it is unclear whether the deliberation that leads to this discriminative decree — if any — had involved enough key stakeholders or representatives of those most impacted by it, which are women.
Both national and international human rights groups have consistently decried the implementation of sharia in Aceh as discriminating against women.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a comprehensive research-based report in 2010 that condemned the sharia implementation in Aceh as an abuse against women and the poor.
Yet neither central nor provincial governments have done anything to revoke such discriminatory regulations. If anything, more have been created since then, including this latest curfew for women.
Many Acehnese love to say that their province arguably has a higher number of female national heroes than other regions. However, honoring figures like Cut Nyak Dhien, Cut Meuthia, Pocut Baren and Malahayati, to name a few, will only serve to remind us of how far the status of Acehnese women has now fallen.
Within one-and-a-half decades they have been turned from equal partners into, for lack of a better word, second-class citizens.
The reason for the central government to tolerate such abuse of Aceh’s special autonomy law has been quite simple: It does not want to risk another conflict with former separatists, even if it means turning a blind eye. This may have changed, as recently Vice President Jusuf Kalla questioned the urgency for the curfew regulation.
However, Home Minister Tjahjo Kumolo seemed to be dragging his feet by defending the curfew as applying only to certain sectors, as being implemented with the necessary precautions and as it will be evaluated and reconsidered every month after its implementation.
He seemed to have missed the point that regardless of safeguards, the curfew regulation and similarly abusive bylaws are discriminative and should not be tolerated.
Locally, it is unnecessary to question the motives and intentions for creating Aceh’s abusive regulations since formal sharia was introduced in Aceh.
We only have to look at the main proponents of these regulations: an executive government currently dominated by an ex-armed group, provincial legislatures whose post-Reformasi female membership has consistently been below 5 percent, religious institutions whose leaderships are de facto all-male, local media which readily dismiss gender issues as not a priority and civil society organizations that — while concerned about women — are sidelined from any policy-making process.
In short, the entire current leadership of Aceh is patriarchal.
As a textbook patriarchy, the leaders of Aceh always claim that their discriminative bylaws are mere extensions of local traditions and customs, which is quite a questionable excuse in today’s multi-cultural and multi-religious Indonesia.
Other cultures and societies in Indonesia have gradually abandoned their gender-discriminatory customs in favor of laws that are more in-tune with modern human rights concerns. Oppressing half the population in an industrial-capitalist world where every contribution is essential for prosperity simply does not make sense. Even politically, alienating half the potential voters is tantamount to suicide.
However, these considerations simply have not sunk into the minds of Aceh’s current leaders, despite the fact that the Aceh governor spent considerable time living in a liberal European country and that the Banda Aceh mayor is a woman. Everyone in Aceh’s political arena is involved in the creation of these out-of-touch by-laws.
There is no way for women to challenge these bylaws using existing mechanisms in Aceh. Their only chance is at the national level. Article 235 of Law No. 11/2006 on the Governance of Aceh stated that bylaws concerning sharia implementation can only be annulled by the Supreme Court (MA). If the current punishing of half of Aceh on the back of discriminatory sharia continues, then the central government is clearly to blame.
Iwan Dzulvan Amir is a researcher who has studied Aceh for more than two decades and currently resides in Jakarta.