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Aceh's morality police on the prowl for violators

The only Indonesian province with Sharia, or Islamic law, has a 1,500-member force whose job is to go after women not properly covered and couples engaging in public displays of affection.

November 08, 2009|John M. Glionna

BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA — The young couple are totally busted. They huddle at a beach-side park, near signs forbidding teens from sitting too close. He has his arm around her shoulder. She isn't wearing her jilbab, the traditional Islamic head scarf.

Just like that, the morality cops are in their face.

"You two aren't married, right?" asks Syafruddin, the rail-thin leader of the six-man patrol, standing stiffly, one hand behind his back. "So you shouldn't sit next to one another."

He separates the two and confiscates their IDs. Later, he says, the team will open an investigation of the couple, especially because the young man had lied, at first insisting the girl was his sister.

"We want to see how far this relationship has progressed," says Syafruddin, who goes by one name. "What they were doing could have led to something sexual."

The team is known as "the vice and virtue patrol," on the beat in Aceh, the only province in the world's most populous Muslim nation to employ Sharia, or Islamic law, for its criminal code. The laws were introduced in 2002 after the Indonesian region was granted autonomy as part of efforts to end a decades-long guerrilla war.

The Sharia police consider themselves the community's public conscience. And on their weekly patrol, they take seriously their role of enforcing the religious strictures.

Now their mission may become deadly serious.

In September, Aceh's provincial parliament passed a law saying married people who commit adultery can be sentenced to death by stoning. It also toughened laws on public caning, adding more lashes for gays, pedophiles and gamblers.

The new law, which still requires the approval of the provincial governor, has outraged human rights groups here, who say the code unfairly targets women and violates international treaties.

They say the law cuts even deeper into private lives. Under the guidelines, the Sharia police could even raid hotel rooms in search of violators, develop informants and work undercover.

Many of Indonesia's 200 million Muslims are moderates. Some worry that the law will discourage much-needed foreign investment in a province leveled by the 2004 tsunami.

None of it fazes the Sharia police.

"We know many foreigners and some Indonesians do not understand this," says Marzuki Abdullah, commander of the 1,500-member Sharia force.

"But Muslims must obey the law. They must go to prayer, do their fasting. Women should dress in an acceptable way.

"Our job is to make sure that they do."


Worse for women

Norma Manalu wistfully runs her colorful purple silk jilbab through her fingers. She has a love-hate relationship with the elegant garment.

"It's hot. It's not appropriate for the climate," says the 35-year-old director of Aceh's Human Rights Coalition. "It's something I choose because it's beautiful, not because a man tells me to do so."

Manalu is a rebel. Often, to make a point about women's rights she walks in public wearing jeans, her head uncovered, ignoring the taunts.

She is sickened by the sight of men and women being publicly caned by a tormentor in a mask.

Manalu contends that women get the worst of the bargain. Many are treated as outcasts after their punishment; men are welcomed back into society.

"It amazes me that in a modern world with sophisticated law and order, we even consider doing this," she says. "It's barbaric."

She dismisses the Sharia police, who she believes enjoy harassing young women.

"Men make these rules based on some misguided image of how women should look," she says. "Here in Aceh, women must accept it or suffer harassment."

A mile away, at religious police headquarters, Abdullah dismisses the uproar over the stoning law. And he says the harsher caning laws also have been overblown. Since 2003, he says, only nine people have been caned in Aceh.

"Men take their lashes like the women," he says. "They're equal."

Abdullah is angered each time he sees couples holding hands or a woman without a veil. He favors a proposed ordinance in one Aceh area that would ban women from wearing pants.

"Most pants are too tight," he says. "They show the curves of a woman's body. With many you can see the shadow of the vagina."

But the religious thought police know they cannot fight television, the racy shows broadcast from Malaysia and Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.

As Abdullah speaks, an office TV shows a shampoo ad featuring a woman in a towel, caressing her long black hair.

Aceh's top morality cop pauses in mid-sentence. He blushes, then catches himself and scoffs.


Searching for sin

The morality cops are on the move. They crouch in military formation, closing in on their prey.

Beneath a row of gracefully bending palms, they've spotted several shady characters at a lonely beachside youth hangout. They could be unmarried young men cavorting with girls not wearing a proper jilbab. They could be holding hands, kissing or, well, who knows what.

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