In Aceh Indonesia, Islamic police take to the streets
Islamic police in Aceh, Indonesia, patrol daily for women wearing tight clothes and unmarried couples sitting too close.
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On a recent afternoon, 12 of Iskandar’s officers – six men and six women, their olive uniforms crowned by baseball caps and scarves, respectively – headed out to Banda Aceh’s harbor area, where young people often congregate.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Behind the veil
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Taking a softly-softly approach said to be typical of Wi-Ha's tactics, they advanced on a couple sitting in the shade. One officer inquired: “Are you married?” Shame-faced, the boy and girl shook their heads. The officers examined their identity papers, then ordered them to leave. They rode off on their motorbike, flush with embarrassment.
Kuzri, the patrol leader, said he had given them a stiff warning. “It’s preventative action, to make sure nothing else happens,” he said. “We told them that to be together in a romantic way, if not married, can lead to bigger things and on to adultery.” (Adultery, in Aceh, means any sex outside marriage.)
A little further on, a girl and boy took off as soon as the squad arrived. “Actually we’re brother and sister, but we were leaving anyway,” said the boy. Another couple, fishing off some rocks, said they were married. Kuzri believed them.
“You can tell,” he said. “First the location: married people don’t need to find a secluded place. Unmarried couples will try to find a place out of sight. Also, they sit very close. People who are married don’t do that."
Enforcement raises concern
While the officers only handed out warnings that afternoon, the force made dozens of arrests last year, mainly for adultery and drinking alcohol. Nevertheless, many Acehnese – particularly young people – appear to regard them mainly as an irritation. “We leave when they arrive, then we come back when they’ve gone,” says one man. “They’re annoying.”
Others dispute whether the Wi-Ha are really role models themselves – a question highlighted this week when three male officers were accused of gang-raping a female detainee in a police cell.
Critics say the way Islamic law is being enforced discriminates against women and poor people (since rich couples can go to a hotel), intrudes into private lives and encourages vigilantism. Acehnese businessmen fear it will harm attempts to attract investment to the province, which is rebuilding its economy following the tsunami.
In Aceh’s rural villages, which are socially conservative, some approve of the stricter codes of behavior. But they also have reservations. Lindawati, a seamstress, says: “Women are dressing more modestly now, which is good. But as for the stoning regulation, I don’t know how I would feel if one of my family had to suffer that kind of punishment.”
Craig Thorburn, an Indonesia expert based at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, believes a radical Islamist minority is currently punching above its weight class. “There is a creeping Saudization taking place all over Indonesia, but it doesn’t have wide support, and I believe it’s a passing phase,” he says.