Monday, January 8, 2001

Lely Djuhari
Associated Press

Tired of jeers, women give in to dictates of Islamic law

Indonesia's restive Aceh province has imposed a strict new dress code, and ignoring the rules can be dangerous

BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA — Tired of daily jeers and insults, Natalia Dewi has done what she never thought she would — she has started wearing a headscarf.

Although Roman Catholic, the college student is among hundreds of thousands of women covering up in accordance with Islamic law in Indonesia's rebellious Aceh province.

Here, on the northern tip of Sumatra island, demands for stricter Islamic observance are intertwined with growing support for pro-independence guerrillas fighting secular Indonesian rule.

Thousands have died during 25 years of violence. The renewed bloodshed in Aceh and other restive provinces has raised fears that religious tensions might one day be the tool to break Indonesia apart.

On Christmas Eve, at least 15 people were killed in bombings outside churches across the country. In the eastern Moluccan islands, where thousands more have died, Christians accuse Muslim gangs of forcing them to convert to Islam at gunpoint.

In Aceh, the new enforced fashion for women is the most overt sign of change. Tight clothes, short skirts and see-through fabrics are out. Arms and legs must be covered.

Shopkeepers in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, say scarf sales have almost doubled.

"It's getting too much. Every day people shouted at me for not covering my head. I just couldn't take it any more," Ms. Dewi said.

Indonesia is the world's most populous Islamic country. About 90 per cent of its 210 million people are Muslim, with Christians comprising a tiny minority of Aceh's four million people.

In most parts, Islam mixes easily with local culture and traditions. Many women go bareheaded, alcohol is sold and government leaders push a national creed that advocates religious tolerance.

But in Aceh, Islamic observance has always been stricter.

It was one of the first places in the sprawling archipelago to come into contact with Muslim traders from Arabia nearly 1,000 years ago. The Acehnese proudly call their homeland the Porch of Mecca and say their devoutness sets them apart from the rest of Indonesia.

Many fear that if Aceh breaks away, other provinces could follow and the country of 17,000 islands would disintegrate.

Desperate to keep Indonesia intact, President Abdurrahman Wahid has bowed to Acehnese demands for the Islamic code called sharia, even though it runs counter to the secular principles followed since independence from the Dutch half a century ago. He hopes it will blunt demands for full independence, which he flatly opposes.

The concession wasn't easy. Mr. Wahid, a Muslim scholar himself, advocates tolerance and has warned against Islamic extremism.

"Islam doesn't advocate force," said Zaitunah Subhan, an adviser at the Women's Affairs Ministry in Jakarta. "Narrow-minded interpretations are not allowed."

It is unclear how much sharia law will be imposed in Aceh. Alcohol is already banned. Religious leaders stress, however, that there are no plans to emulate Islamic states where criminals are flogged, the hands of thieves cut off and adulterers stoned to death.

Nowadays on Banda Aceh's streets, the few women who don't follow an Islamic dress code are ostracized and sometimes physically attacked.

Aceh's Muslim vigilante groups raid gambling halls and shops selling alcohol. Last year, a group rounded up women they accused of being prostitutes, shaved their heads outside a mosque and paraded them through the streets.

But it is not all coercion. Many Acehnese Muslim women comply willingly. Policewomen, nurses and government employees wear headscarves, as do female fighters in the pro-independence Free Aceh Movement.

Indonesia's Vice-President Megawati Sukarnoputri rarely covers her head, but she did so on a recent visit to Aceh.

Chik Rini, a 26-year-old photographer, has worn a headscarf since her teens. "I feel more at peace because I'm not as vain," she said. Suraia Kamaruzzaman, a feminist, says she started wearing a scarf in 1991, "but I stopped a year ago because I felt that women's dress was being politicized."

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Created: January 11, 2001
Last modified: September 1, 2001
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