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Citing Shariah, Indonesian city banning women from straddling motorcycles

(Dustin Volz/Indonesiaful)

A women rides side saddle on the back of a motorcycle in downtown Palembang, South Sumatra. The mayor of a town in Aceh wants to pass legislation banning women who ride on the back of motorcycles from straddling to save them from “things that will cause them to violate Shariah.” (Dustin Volz/Indonesiaful)

The city of Lhouksemawe in Aceh province is implementing a law that forbids women from sitting astraddle the back of a motorcycle. Instead, female passengers must ride sidesaddle, a less comfortable and more dangerous position.

“We want to save women from things that will cause them to violate Shariah (Islamic) law,” the city’s mayor Suaidi Yahya told the Jakarta Globe. “We wish to honor women with this ban, because they are delicate creatures.”

Aceh, where almost 99 percent of residents are Muslim, is the only province in Indonesia governed by Shariah, or Islamic, law. National officials and rights groups are speaking out against the ban, which is now being imposed on a 3-month trial basis.

In the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, it’s hard to find a resident who agrees with the Lhouksemawe straddling ban. Shariah by-laws – which vary from district to district throughout the province – are less archaic here and less strictly enforced. In 2007, the city stopped the spectacle of public punishments, such as canings. Several women bare their hair in public without fear of legal repercussion, and the deputy mayor is a woman (the only elected female officeholder in Aceh).

Yayan is an Acehnese woman who is anything but delicate. She’s a rare breed: a female journalist in a province where more than 90 percent of those working in the field are men. When I ask Yayan, who like many Indonesians only has one name, about the ban, she laughs. “Ha ha, opa Nangkan style.” (Nangkan is the Indonesian word for straddle). Then her face hardens. “I don’t agree with the ban. If they want to stop young couples from getting too close to each other they should fix their behavior. This law makes life harder for all women.”

Razi is the headmaster of a religious boarding school and a father of three. Though he believes Aceh is experiencing “moral degradation” – unmarried young couples pressing their bodies against each other atop motorcycles being one indication — Razi considers the Lhouksemawe law ill conceived, as physical contact is permitted for married couples and family members.

“(Premarital touching) is against Islam and should be prevented,” Razi said. But lawmakers “should take their time and find a better solution to the problem.”

Novia, a graduate student, is angry. She asserts the ban is not rooted in “Islamic values” but in political opportunism. “(The mayor) just wants to look religious so he gets elected again because in Lhouksemawe there are many conservative people,” she said.

In recent years, other districts have implemented similar restrictions with regard to women’s public behavior. In 2009, the district head of West Aceh enacted a regulation that forbade women from wearing pants despite both being part of traditional dress for Acehnese women. This contradiction shows that – as Acehnese NGO leader Shadia Marhaban explained in a Harvard Weatherhead Center for International Affairs research paper – “The ‘radicalization’ of Islam in Aceh is not rooted in the society but is introduced by overzealous and misguided officials.”

Riza, a middle-aged guesthouse owner in Banda Aceh, believes the act is “unnecessary.” According to him, some Shariah regulations are politics encroaching into social life. “(Acehnese) people have followed the laws of Islam for hundreds of years. We don’t need [the government] to tell us to follow them.” Despite heated opposition, the straddling ban looks poised to take full effect, but the debate about Shariah is sure to continue.

About the author: Gordon LaForge is a second-year Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Banda Aceh. He served his first Fulbright year in Bontang, East Kalimantan. Before coming to Indonesia, LaForge lived in Prague where he taught kindergarten and wrote for The Prague Post. LaForge graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a bachelor’s degree in English literature.

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