Yuli Suriani is a student at the Banda, Aceh-based Syiah Kuala University, who also works as a radio broadcaster. She is petite and usually wears blue jeans and a canvas jacket.
Like most women in Banda, Aceh, Yuli uses a jilbab to cover her head, a cotton scarf that usually matches the color of her dresses.
“I feel like imperfect without jilbab. It is a symbol of Muslim women with high status,” she told me last June.
The 27-year-old Yuli has been using the scarf since 1999 to cover what she considers her aurat (an Arabic word meaning “scar” or “hole”).
According to an interpretation of the Quran, the “scar” is shameful and must be covered. A man’s aurat is the area between his belly button and his knees, meaning that a Muslim man should not wear shorts, while a woman’s aurat is from her hair to her knees.
But stricter interpretation says a woman’s aurat includes her face, prompting some women to use jalabiya (dark robe) and cadar (face cover).
Despite the different interpretations and her own dress code, Yuli disagrees with a recent government regulation that requires all Aceh women to wear jilbab.
She believes that faith is an individual matter. There are people whose appearances make them look easygoing, but who knows what’s deep inside their hearts?
“Islam is flexible. Islam does not force people. Jilbab or not, it’s your own business with God,” Yuli said.
Welcome to the complexities of implementing “Islamic shariah” in Aceh, where about 98 percent of the 4.2 million people are officially Muslim. Its towns and villages are graced by thousands of well-kept mosques.
Arab merchants introduced Islam to the region 900 years ago, and from there it spread to the rest of what is now Indonesia. Aceh is also Indonesia’s most rebellious province, where bloody wars against Jakarta have killed thousands of Acehnese.
In January 2002, in an apparent bid to tame Aceh, Jakarta granted the privilege to implement Islamic shariah in Aceh. The local government at once set up a 27-member council of ulamas, whose main duty is to make fatwa (Islamic decisions) and which positioned itself as the fourth branch of Aceh’s government (in addition to the judiciary, the legislature, and the executive).
Muslim Ibrahim, head of the newly appointed Ulamas’ Consultative Assembly, said that the members were initially selected at the district level. Each district nominated 10 ulamas believed “to understand shariah the most and [to have] fluent Arabic.”
Nominees from all districts in a regency were narrowed down to ten ulamas. These ten nominees represented the regency in a provincial contest. Aceh has thirteen regencies, meaning that 130 ulamas from the regencies plus twenty representatives from the universities contested twenty-seven seats in the assembly. They conducted the voting themselves.
Ibrahim was elected the first council chairman. Ibrahim represents the academic world. He obtained his Ph.D. in shariah from the al-Azhar University in Cairo in 1984. Ibrahim teaches “modern fiqih (law)” in Banda Aceh-based ar-Raniry State Islamic Institute. He is one of many Acehnese ulamas who applauded the government decision to implement shariah, arguing that the now-defunct sultanate of Aceh had used shariah to run the country for centuries.
“Islam could always be appropriate in places and times,” Ibrahim said, adding that the council is now preparing local regulations on almost everything in accordance with Islam. He said the sources for their regulations are the Quran and the words (hadith) and practice (sunnah) of Muhammad and his early companions.
These also included iqtihad (interpretation). Debate on Islamic interpretation is not new. In the early days of Islam, this resulted in the formation of the Islamic shariah, based on the Quran and the life and maxims of the Prophet.
It is a code similar to the Jewish Torah. The words of Muhammad were collected during the eighth and ninth centuries by a number of editors, the most famous of whom were Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari and Muslim ibn al-Hijjah al-Qushayri.
Today Ibrahim and his peers are trying to enact those seventh- and eighth-century maxims into action. However, it is not yet clear how Islamic law will be implemented in daily life. Many are still puzzled about how shariah will deal with the guerrilla war and the atrocities in Aceh. It is also not clear how shariah will apply to non-Muslims and how it will deal with questions of modernity like democracy and civil liberty. The ancient shariah did not accommodate modern democracy. With these important questions remaining to be answered, one of the first rulings of Ibrahim’s council was the dress code – women were asked to use jilbab.
The Free Acheh Movement (GAM) and human rights watch groups argued that the Acehnese did not need the implementation of a law to prove that Islam is alive in Aceh. They said that the Acehnese practice Islam in almost everything they do and that they had been formally observing shariah law in daily life for decades, in such areas as marriage, divorce, and the ban on alcohol. But they reject strict punishments that shariah in theory can dispense, such as the amputation of hands for theft.
“Shariah law is not what the Achehnese have been striving for, nor is it the cause of the conflict between Acheh and Jakarta. Indonesia is trying to raise this issue just for political reasons (a new, tricky move to divert your and the world’s attention from the real issue, namely, the right to self-determination of the people of Acheh),” said GAM leader Husaini Hassan in a letter sent to the ambassadors of Islamic countries in Indonesia in December 2000.
“In my opinion, if shariah is to be implemented anywhere, those who will suffer the most are women. All interpretations and decisions are made by men,” said Lily Zakiah Munir, the director of the Jakarta-based Center for Pesantren and Democracy Studies, who has completed a survey on the shariah campaign in Aceh. She added that the twenty-seven ulamas are all men.
In other parts of Indonesia, large Muslim organizations such as the 30-million strong Nahdlatul Ulama and the 20-million strong Muhammadiyah have openly opposed the shariah campaign, saying that it is mere rhetoric. The two organizations believe that the ideals of social justice and human dignity are being implemented in Indonesia under the state ideology of Pancasila.
Ironically, it was President Abdurrahman Wahid, himself a liberal Muslim thinker and an advocate of religious tolerance, who raised the idea of having Aceh implement shariah. Initially, Wahid suggested that the Acehnese could hold a referendum on whether to remain part of Indonesia or become independent.
Many protested, as Indonesian nationalists were still traumatized by the 1999 UN-sponsored referendum in East Timor that resulted in the creation of an independent Timor Leste.
Wahid backtracked and said that his intention was not a referendum on “independence,” but on their “independence to implement shariah.”
Indonesia was established in 1945 as a rather secular state with an official ideology called Pancasila (belief in one God, humanity, the unity of Indonesia, democracy, and social justice). Islam was not made into a state religion. Over the years, however, many Islamists have campaigned for Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim majority, to adopt Islam as a state ideology.
Scarves and Cleavages
Nowadays stories circulate in Banda, Aceh, about women without “proper attire” being stopped on the streets by the shariah police and asked to cover their heads. Some female students have been asked to go home and change.
When I was in Banda in June, every woman seemed to wear jilbab in public places, although many also wore “modish” clothes that showed their figures. “Necks are still seen, jilbabs are seen only as a formality,” said Yuli.
At the School of Economics at the Syiah Kuala University, girls use jilbab at least as a formality. In other places in Banda, I saw young women who covered their heads but showed the cleavage of their breasts.
A popular joke is that even prostitutes in Aceh wear jilbabs. I visited one beauty parlor and a karaoke bar in Banda, but never met prostitutes using veils. I found more women without jilbabs in rural areas and in free-port Sabang, where women went out freely, wearing jeans and shorts and without veils.
To Muslim Ibrahim, these women are "not religious enough." To many women like Yuli Suriani, however, Islam is a presence, not an obligation.
Waving the shariah like an olive branch has shown how little Jakarta understands the Acehnese way of life and their need, not for shariah law but for any law that would do away with impunity and bring soldiers to justice for rights abuses (in accordance with the Quran).
I visited Imam Syuja’, the chairman of the Muhammadiyah in Aceh, to learn his views about shariah. I asked him the relevance of the killings in Aceh that are taking place under the shariah system. Syuja’ said, “Our ulamas are busier talking about shariah than about justice. Our ulamas are busier getting closer to the powers than nurturing an independent mechanism toward the government. It is an irony, isn’t it?”
He lamented the complexities of the Aceh problem, a mix of rising nationalism among the Acehnese, sentiment against Jakarta, and the shariah campaign amidst the war. Ulamas are busier talking about the legality of a jilbab than protesting the killings of so many Acehnese right in front of their noses.