Islamic law aids tsunami widows

In struggles with relatives over inheritances, widows in Aceh have found an unlikely ally: sharia.

When the tsunami came to sweep away her seaside home, her three children, and her husband, Yuniarti thought that she had lost everything she could possibly lose.

She was wrong. After the disaster, the parents of her late husband took away her car, her motorcycle, and other belongings, telling Yuniarti that they had more right to inherit their son's property than she did as a wife.

They were wrong. According to Islamic law, a widow has greater right to inherit her husband's property. Now, Yuniarti is asserting those rights under Islamic sharia law, a 1,300-year-old legal system that has some surprisingly modern notions of women's empowerment.

"The only way I have is to go to sharia court," says Yuniarti, who claims her husband's family has begun to threaten her after she asked repeatedly for her property back. "I know that I will win the case in Islamic court. My husband's parents are religious people, I hope they will hear the decision of the sharia court and accept it."

In other parts of the Islamic world, from Nigeria to Pakistan and Afghanistan, sharia is regarded as creating as many problems for women as it solves. Sharia has been used to codify harsh sentences such as stoning to death for adultery. But in Indonesia, sharia is seen as a welcome advocate of women's rights in a country where government courts are seen as ineffective and open to corruption.

Inheritance wasn't an issue that many women gave much thought before the devastating Dec. 26 tsunami. But after the disaster, which killed at least 200,000 here and left 600,000 more homeless, many Acehnese families have begun squabbling over what's left - houses, cars, land. Many grieving widows are scrambling to hold onto what little they have.

"After the tsunami, it's difficult for women to get the rights to their land, their property, their money," says Hajjah Adiwarni Husin, provincial head of the Islamic Women's Association in Banda Aceh. "They have the right under sharia, and they have the right under national law, but people don't know the law, and they are selfish. Some educated women may know their rights, but they don't have the courage to speak up."

By nature, Acehnese women are no shrinking violets. Some of the strongest rulers and military commanders of medieval Aceh have been women, and a statue at the governor's mansion in Banda portrays Acehnese women killing Dutch colonial soldiers with bayonets.

Yet in daily practice, most Acehnese women let men run business affairs, tasking themselves to run the home. Most couples own property jointly, but land documents include only the signatures of husbands; few wives bother to speak up at public meetings, and few get signing authority on checking accounts, a fact that has made dividing property after the tsunami even more difficult.

"The tsunami really opened our eyes," says Ibu Rosmawardani, a lawyer working with Yayasan Putroe Kandee, a social organization for women and children. "What people are doing now is not according to our Koran or the Hadiths [Islam's holiest books]," she says. "They just want to get money."

Hanisah Abdullah, the only female religious scholar on the Ulema Council, a grouping of Islamic scholars, says that the solution is to educate women and men about what the Koran really says about family law and women's rights.

"The people who put limitations on women don't really know much about the law," says Mrs. Hanisah. "If a woman and a man work together, they divide their property equally."

"We need to teach a new generation of ulema, send them to the villages, and teach people the law," says Hanisah. "But the problem is, we don't have the funding."

While sharia may be a more sympathetic system in regard to women's rights than the cultural behaviors of Aceh, sharia also has a dark side. This spring, in the town of Beureun, 20 men convicted of theft in sharia court were sentenced to public flogging - the first such punishment of its sort in recent memory. Such harshness, and inability to appeal decisions reached by religious courts, leaves many activists here wary of encouraging a revival of sharia.

And some women are reluctant to assert their rights for fear of damaging relations between families united by marriage.

Typical is the story of Hajjah Saidah. This 60-something grandmother is now raising her 8-year-old grandson, Mohammad Jaya, because the boy's entire family was wiped out in the tsunami.

By both national and Islamic law, young Mohammad Jaya is entitled to receive all the property of his parents, including the pension of his father, Muzakkir Rasyid, a government servant. But in the scramble for assets after the tsunami, Hajjah Saidah ended up with the grandson, and Rasyid's family ended up with his assets. Each month, they give 500,000 rupiahs ($102) - a fraction of his salary - to Hajjah Saidah for Mohammad's expenses, and they have promised the boy's grandmother to give the boy the pension once he reaches adulthood.

Hajjah Saidah is worried she may not live long enough to be sure they honor their promise.

"The family said they will give the boy his property when he grows up. If they give it, thank God. If they don't, well, I don't know what will happen then. That's what I worry about," she says. For this reason she is pressing her case, despite threats from her husband's family if she doesn't drop it.

"They just want me to follow what they say," she says. "But I think we should follow sharia."

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