A “Shariah Police” Operation in Banda Aceh
On Tuesday morning, 4 May 2010, the Wilayatul Hisbah (WH, the Aceh government’s “vice and virtue patrol,” the so-called shariah police force) together with the Satpol PP (the public order officer corps) staged one of their largest ever public “sweeping” operations (razia). They chose a strategic time and place to achieve perfect optics. Simpang Mesra (the “Intimate Intersection”) is a traffic circle so named with tongue firmly in cheek because when you drive around it your fellow passengers centrifugally slide up against you, hence the intimacy. This is the main thoroughfare that connects Banda Aceh proper to its adjacent campus community in Darussalam just across the river. So on weekday mornings, young nubile college students are driving to and from their classes, many of them on motorbikes. The WH set up their check-point on both lanes of the stretch of road along the river between Simpang Mesra to the north and the bridge over to Darussalam just a few hundred meters south.
The purpose of the razia is to surveil citizens, particularly women, to make sure their bodies are well-covered. If a person’s aurat (not aura, ok) is showing, it could incite uncontrollable sexual urges among men, and so women have a responsibility to keep their aurat covered. The regulations are defined in Qanun (Aceh provincial law) Number 11/2002. In places like Simpang Mesra, in broad daylight, the razia is a fairly orderly and bureaucratic exercise. If the WH decide that your aurat is showing, they have the authority to give you some religious instruction on the correct ways to keep your aurat covered. After the lecture, some other WH officials take down your name and ID number, and then you have to sign a statement that says you intend to dress appropriately in the future.
It wasn’t long before word reached us at our office that the WH were conducting a razia just across the river, so Joko took my camera and went to go check it out.* The WH officials at the checkpoint graciously gave Joko permission to take pictures, and I’ve collected them all along with some newspaper clippings in a flickr set linked here. In these photos, the WH wear dark green and the Satpol PP wear beige. WH men pull over offending women and give them religious fashion tips, while the WH women do the administrative processing of taking names and collecting signed forms. As for the Satpol PP men, they help pull people over, and the Satpol PP women just stand around wearing uniforms that don’t look all that different from the clothes worn by the women who got pulled over.
Serambi newspaper reported that the WH registered 194 offenders, easily one of the WH’s largest sweeping operations. All but four of the offenders were women! But looking at these pictures, it’s hard not to conclude that the WH’s definition of aurat for women is unreasonably strict, because every one of them are fully covered. Some are wearing “shapely” pants or shirts, but all are wearing jilbab veils. It’s unsafe to ride a motorbike with the kind of drapery that women are expected to wear. I’m confused about this because there is no formal regulation against women wearing jeans, except in Aceh Barat, so on what grounds can the WH justify pulling these women over? As for the four men that were pulled over, they were wearing shorts above the knees, so the double standard in defining gendered aurat exposure speaks for itself.
What matters, I’m guessing, is the dramatic figure of 194 registered offenders. It fills a quota, justifying the bureaucratic ambitions and budget allocations of the Islamic law agency (Dinas Syariat Islam). For those who support formal Islamic law without looking at the details of its implementation, 194 registered offenders caught at Simpang Mesra during the campus commute readily confirms a prevailing discourse in Aceh about how the youth threaten Aceh’s reputation of religious probity and therefore require constant surveillance and moral intervention.
The WH technically do not have the authority to arrest; they can only advise. Few people understand the limits of the WH’s authority, and their common nickname, the “shariah police” (polisi syariat), does not help to demystify their role. What would happen if one of these women refused to stop?
The next day we found out! The accident pictured above and below was headline news not just in Serambi, but also in Kompas, Indonesia’s largest and highly regarded national daily paper. What I conclude from the limited information in both articles is that if a woman does not stop, then the WH (or, in this case, a Satpol PP officer) will put her (and themselves) in physical danger by actually trying to stop her. She crashed right into the Satpol PP dude, knocking him over and falling off her bike as well! But all we really know is that she tried to drive through the checkpoint without stopping, and that the crash did not cause any serious injuries. What a terrible pity that Serambi made no effort to get her side of the story to find out what actually happened.
Measured against recent events surrounding the implementation of formal Islamic law in Aceh, this operation was very tame. In January 2010 three WH officers in Langsa were arrested for gang raping a woman they “arrested” after they caught her together with her boyfriend. The very existence of laws that invest the WH with surveillance authority has unofficially encouraged civilian communities to do the same, which has frequently led to mob vigilante violence against unmarried couples “caught in the act.” A soon-to-be published book (Serambi Mekkah yang Berubah) has a chapter written by one of my research colleagues (Marzi Afriko) that recounts how religious groups in Aceh Utara increased their vigilante violence activities when there was a demonstrable decrease in funding for the WH to carry out their legally sanctioned operations. Communal vigilantism is even portrayed sympathetically in Serambi, as this horrifying example (linked here) attests. But at Simpang Mesra, the WH’s razia on 4 May 2010 was procedural and banal by comparison. Maybe it was a recuperative PR exercise designed to reset deteriorating public perceptions of the WH. Another look at the pictures suggests that the women pulled aside were not particularly ashamed or upset, but rather annoyed and inconvenienced. They are late for class or some other engagement. They are texting on their phones to let others know, perhaps also to warn friends away from the razia that has delayed them. The traffic accident depicted above merely hints at the violence that men are capable of perpetrating against women (and other men) who violate their interpretation of religious laws that are still widely debated in Aceh.
* All non-newspaper images in this entry were taken by Joko Sutranto. Thanks Joko!