Indonesia’s Aceh bans unrelated men and women from being together in public

Uzair Thamrin
Banda Aceh, Indonesia
Indonesia’s Aceh bans unrelated men and women from being together in public A woman (left) is caned by a member of the Sharia police as punishment for being caught in close proximity with a man in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, June 7, 2023.
[Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP]

Indonesia’s religiously conservative Aceh region has forbidden men and women not related or married to one another from being together in public places or vehicles, by issuing new tightened rules for keeping the opposite sexes apart.

The new regulations, which were made public this week, are intended to reduce sinful behavior, says the government of Aceh, the only Indonesian province that practices Sharia, or Islamic law. 

But critics say they are a smokescreen to distract from rampant government corruption.

“Men and women who are not married or related cannot sit together in public places, secluded places or in vehicles,” one of the points in the official notice said.

Concurrently, the province’s main form of entertainment, its 24-hour coffee shops, have been ordered to limit their hours of operation, and shut at midnight.

And to ensure the new provincial rules are more convenient to follow, the mayor of the Acehnese capital Banda Aceh said he had forbidden women altogether from public areas beyond 11 p.m.

The new rules were issued to strengthen Sharia law and as an effort to reduce immorality, Aceh government spokesman Muhammad MTA said on Friday.

They are also intended “to mold a generation of people who faithfully comply with Islamic values in their daily lives,” he said.

The Aceh government’s notice does not specify whether authorities would punish anyone who violates the rules, although under the province’s Sharia, caning is the punishment for alcohol consumption, gambling, adultery, and dress-code violations.

Members of the Sharia police stop motorists for a Sharia-compliant dress-code check along a road in Lambaro, Aceh province, Indonesia, July 23, 2019. [Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP]

In Banda Aceh, Mayor Amiruddin, who goes by one name, said he would deploy the Sharia Police – known as the Wilayatul Hisbah – to ensure compliance with the new rules. 

He didn’t say what, if any, punishment would be imposed for violations. He merely spoke about taking measures “to reduce the space for violations of Islamic law,” such as forbidding women from lingering in public spaces after 11 p.m.

Aceh, at the northwestern end of Sumatra island, gained special autonomy in 2005 after a peace agreement ended the war with GAM, a separatist group.

In 2002, Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, allowed Aceh to use Sharia as its legal code when it granted the province limited autonomy to pacify the clamor for independence.

‘Islamic law as a shield’

A women’s rights activist, Syarifah Rahmatillah, said the new rules would end up being discriminatory towards women.

“Again, women become victims of government policies. There is no acceptable reason and we do not agree with this policy that harms women,” she said.

Small business owners of coffee houses are also up in arms, calling the new restrictions extremely worrisome.

Al Agusna, who owns the Sagoe coffee shop in Banda Aceh, said the reason for the restriction on operating hours was unacceptable. 

Neither he nor the government notice specified the reason, but some locals who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons said the authorities believed that some coffee shops were venues for prostitution deals.

“Our coffee shop has been open 24 hours for a long time and so far, there has been no Sharia violation as it is located in the city center and an open area,” he told BenarNews.

“We employ a lot of workers and accommodate many food stall tenants. These restrictions are so detrimental.”

Samsul Rizal, manager at Banda Aceh’s renowned Rex culinary center, a top tourist destination in Peunayong, said many street food vendors relied on being open until 2 a.m. for their living.

“This could harm the business owners and affect their income. We are really worried that many traders will be in debt as a result of this restriction,” Samsul told BenarNews.

Acehnese dine at the renowned Rex culinary center, Banda Aceh, Indonesia, Aug. 10, 2023. [Uzair Thamrin/BenarNews]

For anti-corruption activist Askhalani, who goes by one name, the new rules are excessive and intended to cover up the poor performance of the government, which has failed to lift people from poverty despite a large injection of funds from Jakarta since 2008.

“Strict supervision should be carried out over corruption that still occurs within the government, not people’s economic activities,” Askhalani told BenarNews, referring to the rule about limiting coffee shops’ hours. 

Aceh has received nearly 96 trillion rupiah (U.S. $6.2 billion) in special autonomy funds from the central government between 2008 and 2022. Yet, it is the poorest province in Sumatra, with nearly 15% of its population living in poverty as of September 2022.

Syakya Meirizal, of the Special Autonomy Concern Community (MPO), said that corruption among the authorities has hampered public welfare.

“Then the government uses Islamic law as a shield to cover its poor performance,” he told BenarNews.


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