Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Aceh, Indonesia: When Dating Meets Sharia Law

In Aceh, young people have to reconcile their daily life with a strict version of Islamic law.

By Ana Salvá for
Aceh, Indonesia: When Dating Meets Sharia Law

An Acehnese Sharia police officer mans a checkpoint as a Muslim woman walks past by in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, Indonesia, Oct. 19, 2013.

Credit: AP Photo/Heri Juanda

Fajran Zain still remembers the days when young lovers from the province of Aceh, in Indonesia, could sit to enjoy the sunset together without having to worry about the religious police.

This province in Indonesia’s extreme west is the only one where Sharia law is officially practiced in the country. The controversial Islamic legal code was first introduced in 2001, after the capital, Jakarta, granted more autonomy to the region in an attempt to appease rebels who were waging a long-term insurgency.

After the agreement, movies and karaoke were prohibited and young people are increasingly faced with more restrictions. For example, at the end of June, the Aceh Ulema Council issued a fatwa against PlayerUnknown’s Battleground, a very popular online shooting game in the province, claiming that it promotes bad behavior. Faisal Ali, deputy chairman of the Aceh Ulema Council, said that this game “also insults Islam,” without giving any details for the reasoning behind the claim.

In Aceh, it is also more and more difficult to go dating, or get to know your crush. The punishments for those supposed offenders who decide to date or to have sexual relations go beyond a scolding by their parents or a simple warning from the authorities. Couples who are not married and are found hugging or just holding hands can be flogged dozens of times in public.

It happened, for example, in January 2019, when two 18-year-olds were flogged 17 times in front of a crush of people in front of the mosque in the capital of the province, Banda Aceh, because they were caught hugging each other. In March, at least two women were also left unable to walk after a brutal public whipping for alleged “intimate relations” outside marriage.

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Consuming alcohol, sexual relations outside of marriage, adultery, and homosexuality are also sanctioned. The watchdog Human Rights Watch reported in 2017 that there had been more than 500 public floggings since 2015, when the punishment was introduced as part of the new Islamic penal code.

According to Zain, who is 30 years old and works as a political analyst for the Aceh Institute in Banda Aceh, perhaps the worst part of this for young people is the public shame. The lashes are carried out in front of mosques, where large crowds gather and take pictures of people being punished by a hooded man armed with a rattan cane. The images then appear on social networks and in the newspapers, embarrassing these young people and their families.

International human rights groups have repeatedly condemned this practice and even the president of Indonesia, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, has asked to end it on some occasions. But in Aceh, where 98 percent of its 5 million residents practice Islam, there is more support for the implementation of Sharia law.

Given the circumstances, it is not surprising that that people in Aceh “are not familiar” with dating applications such as Tinder, according to Cut Famelia, a 28-year-old Acehnese. If two young people decide to meet, they have to do it in a crowded place, like a cafeteria, to share a non-alcoholic drink in order to avoid having problems with the religious police.

The restrictions that Acehnese face depends on where they live, and they are especially hard on women. In Banda Aceh, the situation has relaxed somewhat since a new mayor was elected in 2017, according to Zain.

Under the previous mayor, women’s movements were very restricted, with a partial curfew imposed in 2015 that dictated that they should be at home before 11 o’clock at night to “reduce sexual violence,” said Zain. The former mayor also ordered venues including restaurants, sport centers, internet cafes, and tourist attractions not to serve women after 11 p.m., unless they were accompanied by their husbands or other male relative.

In another part of the province, in Bireuen district, a rule introduced in September 2018 forbids men and women from having dinner together unless they are married or related, to ensure that women “behave better,” according to statements by a district official published by The Guardian.

Another misogynistic restriction introduced in northern Aceh in 2013 banned women from straddling motorbikes, except in an “emergency” case. The mayor of Lhokseumawe, the second largest city in the province, said that the ban was necessary because “the curves of a woman’s body are more visible” if they travel in this way.

The most recent ban was in July of this year, when Islamic organizations and scholars denounced plans for a women’s soccer league in the region, because they said women playing soccer “is forbidden” under Islamic law.

However, even younger generations support the Sharia law. According to Andreas Harsono, a researcher at Human Rights Watch based in Jakarta and author of Race, Islam and Power: Ethnic and Religious Violence in Post-Suharto Indonesia, many Acehnese young people believe that the Sharia law “is their tradition and will keep them away from natural disasters like the tsunami.”

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For example, Famelia largely supports Sharia, though she does not support the warnings issued by the authorities and the pressure exerted on women, which can sometimes be embarrassing.

She said that official messages like “if you dress like that, then you do not love your father” have been distributed in the past, while a poster placed on an important crossing in Banda Aceh warns that if a man other than the husband sees a single strand of woman’s hair, the punishment will be 70,000 years in hell. Famelia, despite wearing a hijab with pride as a sign of her faith, questions the authorities for forcing all women to cover themselves.

Under Sharia law, it’s not only women who face persecution: The LGBT community in Aceh has also become a target in recent years. In 2017, a homosexual couple was persecuted by a gang of vigilantes and received 85 lashes each after they were found guilty of violating the province’s Islamic penal code, unleashing much criticism inside and outside of Indonesia.

Nevertheless, it is not only in Aceh that Islamic conservatism seems to be on the rise. There is some evidence that the trend is taking place across the country, especially after the imprisonment of the Christian former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Ahok Tjahaja, who was sent to jail for two years in 2017 for blasphemy against Islam. More recently, an Indonesian Buddhist woman was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2018 for complaining that her neighborhood mosque was too loud. This events demonstrates that hardline religion is taking root in other parts of the country, shaking the national motto of Indonesia: “unity in diversity.”

In Aceh, attempts to change the way Sharia is being applied have not advanced much. Last year, the governor of the province tried to move the lashings into prisons and out of public view, provoking complaints from Islamic groups that organized protests in front of his office because they believe that floggings have a deterrent effect.

Conservative voices also tend to receive more publicity in the media than the progressive ones, so just a few people are encouraged to talk actively. According to the activists consulted, some people are afraid to share their ideas. But there are exceptions. A group based in Aceh that calls itself the Society Network for Islamic Law Care has about 30 members and is trying to change things.

According to academic Fuad Mardhotillah, who is on the group’s advisory board, the underlying problem with Sharia punishments is that they “are a misinterpretation of Islam.” He openly criticizes the government for caring only about people “when they are dating or drinking.” Despite the group having published several brochures and regularly organizing seminars, Mardhotillah laments that few people in Aceh pay attention to these issues.

For progressive people like him, who hope to reverse the course of history, the future seems complicated. Researcher Harsono said that eliminating Sharia once it has been implemented is almost impossible, because anyone who tries it could be accused of “committing blasphemy against Islam.” He predicted that a child born today will be “lucky” if Sharia disappears in his or her lifetime.

In the meantime, Harsono said that more and more young creative minds are leaving Aceh, looking for jobs and opportunities in other cities like Medan or Jakarta — anywhere else.

Ana Salvá is a freelance journalist based in Southeast Asia.