Indonesia's Moral Cops Lower Hemlines

by Trilok Kapur on  December 28, 2009 at 8:00 AM Lifestyle News
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Yuli is still stopped by the sharia police, though she wears a helmet and drives her scooter slowly through the capital of Indonesia's Aceh province. Her crime: wearing tight jeans and a blouse deemed "un-Islamic".

The 20-year-old lowers her eyes and doesn't argue with the khaki-clad male officers who summon her to the side of the road.

"I promise to buy a more Muslim outfit," she says, showing enough contrition for the police to wave her on her way.

In one hour, 18 women are pulled over because the guardians of morality decide their slacks are too tight or their shirts reveal too much of their feminine curves.

Only three men receive the same treatment, for wearing shorts.

"We have to respect sharia (Islamic) law, which has been adopted by the provincial government and which stipulates that women can only show their faces and their hands," sharia police commander Hali Marzuki told AFP.

Perched at the end of Sumatra island about 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) northwest of the Indonesian capital Jakarta, Aceh is one of the most conservative regions in the mainly Muslim archipelago.

Most Muslims in the country of 234 million people are modern and moderate, and Indonesia's constitution recognises five official religions including Buddhism and Christianity.

But Aceh has special autonomy, and one of the ways it has defined itself as different from the rest of the country is through the implementation of sharia law and the advent of the religious police.

The force has more than 1,500 officers, including 60 women, but unlike their fearsome counterparts in Saudi Arabia the local sharia police do not seem to cause too much concern among citizens.

Officers are relatively cheerful, they carry no weapons and they almost always let wrongdoers off with a warning.

"Punishment is not the objective of the law. We must convince and explain," says Iskander, the sharia police chief in Banda Aceh, who goes by only one name.

He has the power to order floggings but has found no need to do so since he was promoted to his current position a year ago.

Less than a dozen people have been publicly caned since 2005, for drinking alcohol, gambling or having illicit sexual relations.

Advocates say the force is having a good effect on society.

"The message is getting around and there are less and less violations," says senior officer Syarifuddin, adding that most of the people arrested under sharia law had been denounced to the police by fellow citizens.

It was thanks to one such tipoff that police busted a group of men gambling over dominoes in a cafe earlier this month.

Another preoccupation for the sharia police is the "sin of khalwat", when a man and woman are found alone in an isolated place, such as a beach.

Young Acehnese lovers, or any man and woman for that matter, need to watch their backs if they want to sit together with the sand between their toes and take in one of Aceh's beautiful seaside sunsets.

"You have to learn quickly with these police around," said 17-year-old student Fira, who says she likes to "have fun".

"We know how to take precautions to avoid the checks. And anyway, if you're caught you only risk being reprimanded."

But this game of cat-and-mouse could take an ugly turn if a new regulations allowing the stoning to death of adulterers and the flogging of homosexuals is signed into law by the provincial government.

The law was enacted by the outgoing Aceh Legislative Council on September 14, but it has been under review by the newly elected assembly and has not been signed into effect by Governor Irwandi Yusuf.

Lawmakers in jakarta have expressed their opposition to such draconian punishments, which could be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and re-open old wounds about Aceh's hard-won autonomy.

"We have to be very careful in the face of such radical pressures," said Khairani Arifin, an activist for Acehnese women's rights.

"Aceh could look like Pakistan one day," she warned.

Source: AFP

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