Women's concerns sidelined in Aceh's religious-political mix

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 December, 2006, 12:00am

Norma Susanti, 31, says she is a good Muslim. Yet, as she gets ready to vote in today's historic first direct election for governor, the young woman confesses she is unhappy about how politics and religion have been muddled.

She also worries that it will all lead to a bleaker future for women.

'To attract votes from radical groups, candidates have promised more sharia [Islamic] law' said Mrs Susanti, who is an activist with the local group Women Volunteers for Humanity.

'I am afraid this political bargaining will become another barrier for women.'

Situated in the westernmost tip of the country-archipelago, Aceh is the only Indonesian province that has the legal right to apply sharia in full.

Although the Islamic code has been put into practice only partially, concerns have been raised that this has been to the detriment of women and the poor.

According to the International Crisis Group, the situation has been worsened by the ill-trained sharia police, a force that has grown in stature and is now threatening the authority of the regular police.

In general, women face being beaten and arrested for misdemeanours such as not wearing their head scarves properly.

In the electoral context, several candidates for the province's top job have promised a stricter and fuller application of Islam.

The election is considered an important stepping stone in cementing the peace deal signed by former rebel group Gerakan Aceh Merdeka and Jakarta in Finland in August last year.

Suraiya Kamaruzamman, 37, a leading campaigner with the group Flower Aceh, said she was saddened by the lack of female candidates after the only female aspirant, Mediati Hafni Hanum, was dropped for supposedly failing the pre-election compulsory reading of a Koran text.

'It is a gender issue and not a religious one. Mrs Hanum can read the Koran. She studied in an Islamic school where everybody learns to read it,' Ms Kamaruzamman said.

Her finger-pointing is dismissed by H. Dhiauddin, 56, the second in charge at Dinas Sharia Islam Banda Aceh, the organisation entrusted with supervising all aspects of sharia.

'The Dinas Sharia was not involved in the exam, but the panel is a very experienced one. Mrs Hanum just failed the text, and it has nothing to do with gender,' Mr Dhiauddin said. He said religious leaders were neutral in the election but 'the religious background of the candidates is an important criterion that voters should consider'.

The weight of the latter point was brought home by Muslim Ibrahim, a member of the Majelis Permusyawaratan Ulama Aceh, the province cleric assembly, who said sharia 'is not just important, but essential'.

'Sharia has become the spirit of Aceh's life. I think the candidate's willingness to enforce sharia will influence the voters,' he said confidently.

In regards to women, Mr Muslim said: 'One day, some time in the future, they can also be good leaders, and there is nothing in Islamic law to prevent it.'

The promise of future inclusion does not convince Mrs Susanti or Mrs Kamaruzamman, who fear the glass ceiling will never be lifted. They say that religion plays a crucial role in the electoral process and that this election is a failure for women.

'It is not just the lack of female candidates; it is also the lack of pro-women policies,' Mrs Kamaruzamman said after reviewing the eight candidates' platforms. 'Only two mentioned women, but in a vague and rhetorical way.'