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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Furore over pants ruling

Aceh’s Morality Police (Wilayahtul Hisbah) have taken to hauling up women for wearing tight trousers. In one district, they plan to make women hand over their tight trousers and cut the offending attire up on the spot.

CLAD in dark jeans, a long-sleeved top and headscarf, Henny is exasperated.

“Why is it that it is always the woman’s body that is subject to this or that regulation? It’s a pity our freedom on how to dress is being taken away from us.

“And what about the men? What regulations do they have to shield their eyes?” she adds pointedly.

Henny who works at Beujroh, a woman’s NGO, believes that the focus on personal matters like a woman’s style of dressing is actually to take attention away from urgent issues like corruption.

Most would agree that Henny, who is covered from head to toe with only her face, hands and feet exposed, is dressed in proper attire for a Muslim woman.

Leave women alone: Henny believes that the focus on personal matters like a woman’s style of dressing is actually to take attention away from urgent issues like corruption.

But not, apparently, for the Wilayahtul Hisbah or “WH” (pronounced “wee ha”) – in short, the Acehnese Morality Police.

For them, Henny’s jeans – or for that matter any jeans for women – is a no-no. Jeans, they say, are “men’s clothing”.

So women in Aceh should only wear trousers made of non-jeans material and these have to be loose and not made of thin fabric.

Those wearing fitting trousers or tight tops can expect to be hauled up and scolded by the Morality Police.

In Meulaboh, West Aceh, it goes a step further.

From Jan 1, women caught wearing fitting trousers will be given long skirts (for free) by these Morality Squads and the “offending” trousers will be cut to pieces.

And government offices too are to refuse service to women wearing tight trousers!

Celana ketat ngak tutup aurat. Itu balut aurat. (Tight trousers do not cover the body. They wrap the body),” explains M. Kassim Idris, who is second-in-command of the WH in Banda Aceh where the Morality Squad too has been stopping girls wearing what they see as figure-hugging clothes.

They have been reprimanding the girls and taking their personal details like their ID number and home address.

But unlike their counterparts in Melauboh, they do not have the power, as yet, to compel the girls to hand their tight trousers over and cut them to shreds.

Kassim, though, is very eager for Banda Aceh to follow Melauboh’s example because “girls in tight trousers can rosak moral anak lelaki muda (damage young men’s morals).”

What then, you might ask, is the man’s role in safeguarding his own morals? And why punish women for men’s weakness in not being able to rein in their lust?

Kassim says the men are being “helped” too through religious guidance and sermons after Friday prayers.

“We are instilling stronger faith in men (so that they will be spiritually stronger),” he adds.

Flowering of democracy

Aceh, a Muslim majority province, is known as Serambi Mecca (The Verandah of Mecca) because Islam first came to Indonesia through this province. Some here have even taken the massive tsunami on Dec 26, 2004, which killed over 200,000 here, as a warning from God.

They point to a beach party on Dec 25 night by Brimob (Indonesia’s Police Special Operations Force Unit) where there were lots of music, dancing, free flow of booze and a free mixing of the two sexes till morning as the reason God sent down the tsunami on Aceh.

All the party revellers died when the gigantic waves struck and swallowed them up.

People, too, look at the fact that mosques were about the only structures that survived the tsunami as yet another sign from God that people have to mend their ways.

Hence, they say, there is this renewed emphasis on Islam, including going after those in tight trousers.

But law lecturer Saifuddin Bantasyam from Kuala Syiah University disagrees. He stresses that Aceh’s focus on the Syariah (Islamic law) is not directly related to the tsunami.

After all, he says, the Syariah Law started in Aceh in 2001 (three years before the tsunami) when the Indonesian central government agreed to give Aceh autonomy, or even earlier than that in 1999 when Aceh (which has been fighting a guerilla war against the Indonesian government for 30 years) was accorded privileges in matters of education, religion and customary laws.

“So the idea for the Syariah was already there. But don’t forget at that time we were still in an armed conflict situation and many institutions and groups did not dare speak up, including on the formalisation of the syariah law,” he says.

But months after the tsunami, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and Indonesia managed to come to a peace agreement and with it a new autonomy law for Aceh (Law 11, 2006) which again endorses the idea to formalise the Syariah.

Saifuddin believes what is happening in Aceh now is simply that with the conflict over, there is a flowering of democracy again and “everyone, including religious groups, is starting to speak up or is speaking louder”.

Thus, bodies like the Morality Police are free to be set up and their squads can move about checking the conduct of the people.

Kassim says the role of the Morality Squad is geared towards building up society and getting people to adhere to the right path, and warning them against committing transgressions.

Other than tight trousers, the moral squad goes after those who gamble, drink alcohol, skip Friday prayers and unmarried couples who are in lonely places together. Those holding hands are let off with a warning but those found hugging, kissing or in other compromising positions will face the shame of having their photos taken, and their parents, village head, and religious leader in the area will be informed of their misdemeanour.

Serious offenders, male or female, could be whipped.

But the squad does not have the power to prosecute. That lies in the hands of the Syariah court.

In September, new regulations were introduced in Aceh that would allow the stoning to death of adulterers. However, this has not been made into law because the Aceh Gover­nor, who is said to oppose this, has refused to sign it thus far.

“We need to give faith and understanding to society about all these laws so that society will not be shocked. We need to ready society first to understand,” says Morality Police’s Kassim.

Call for reason

Coming back to the regulations on tight trousers, when Didiya, Henny’s youngest sister, was stopped for wearing tight trousers, she simply refused to co-operate. And the Morality Police could do nothing.

They demanded for her ID but she claimed she didn’t have any. When they asked her to get into their truck, she refused.

“They insisted but she stood her ground, saying she had covered her aurat and in her book she has done nothing wrong. In the end, they let her go,” says Henny.

Her sister is still going around town dressed in the same manner and is just as defiant, she adds with a laugh.

Henny says the men see women as weak and easy to intimidate.

“In West Aceh, men see women as weak and the women themselves also think of themselves as weak so they are further disempowered,” she points out.

Women, she says, have a right to voice out what they think, especially when it comes to regulations that affect them.

But the unfortunate thing, she adds, is that those who dare to speak out are quickly labelled as deviants who are not keeping to the true teachings of Islam, and this scares off people.

Henny says she plans to continue wearing her jeans and riding her motorbike in Banda Aceh regardless of the regulations.

“Making women wear long skirts is not only an inconvenience but also dangerous for those on motorbikes (normal mode of transportation here). It can get us into accidents,” she says.

For Henny, the chances of women exposing their aurat (all parts of the body for the female except for the hands, feet and face) is more likely when someone wearing a skirt rides a bike. The skirt would be hiked up, exposing the leg and calf.

She also says the Morality Squad once mistakenly stopped a woman on a motorbike because they thought she had tight trousers on. “But she was actually wearing a long skirt but had leggings on underneath it.”

Saifuddin says the people here are divided over the issue.

“Syariah is not about jeans, clothes or tight trousers. The government should try to be more comprehensive and broad in its scope of the Syariah law,” he says.

“What I can see is that the district government in Aceh is very narrow in interpreting the values of Syariah, as if the Syariah does not deal with corruption or human rights violation. All aspects can be covered and the government should try to be equal and not just go after these private things.

“When it comes to legislation, the government has to be careful and listen to the views of parliament and voices of the people. If you just go after private things of the people, I think they will oppose this,” he adds.

While chatting with Amir, our driver in Aceh, about the tight trousers regulation, he commented on some Malaysian women studying religion in Aceh who wear the burqa (the loose black garment worn by women in Arab countries where only the eyes are exposed), which you don’t see Acehnese women wearing.

Amir wanted to know if these women in burqa wear panties. “Some of my friends said they don’t!” he says, laughing.

As Henny rightfully points out, even when a woman uses the burqa, men’s minds still wander.

“They wonder what lies underneath the burqa. They think she must really be beautiful, that’s why she is all covered up. Or maybe she is disfigured, or maybe it is actually a man pretending to be a woman.”

It seems that however women are dressed, be it in loose-fitting burqa, tight trousers or long flowing skirts, women can’t win either way.

BY SHAHANAAZ HABIB

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