Banda Aceh. Though she wears a helmet and drives her scooter slowly through the provincial capital Banda Aceh, Yuli is still stopped by the Shariah Police. Her crime: wearing tight jeans and a blouse deemed “un-Islamic.”
The 20-year-old doesn’t argue with the 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.
“We have to respect Shariah [Islamic] law, which has been adopted by the provincial government and which stipulates that women can only show their faces and their hands,” Shariah Police commander Hali Marzuki told Agence France-Presse.
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 Shariah 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 Shariah Police do not seem to cause too much concern among residents.
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 Iskandar, the Shariah Police chief in Banda Aceh.
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. “There are less and less violations,” says senior officer Syarifuddin, adding that most of the people arrested under Shariah law had been denounced to the police by fellow citizens.
It was thanks to one such tip-off that police busted a group of men gambling over dominoes in a cafe earlier this month. Another preoccupation for the Shariah Police is the “sin of khalwat,” when a man and woman are found alone in an isolated place, such as a beach.
But this game of cat-and-mouse could take an ugly turn if 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 Sept. 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 reopen 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.”