01/07/2013, 00.00

Under Aceh's Sharia rules, women banned from straddling motorbikes

Mathias Hariyadi
Under the new bylaw, straddling two-wheeled vehicles is deemed "unseemly" and "provocative". For the measure's promoters, women must be protected from "unwelcome" situations, and the province's Islamic spirit must be strengthened. As the gap between radical and moderate Muslims widens, human rights activists say the rule puts women at risk.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) - A controversial rule has come into effect in Aceh's Lhokseumawe District, eliciting both support and fierce criticism. Its purpose is to regulate how women can sit on motorcycles and mopeds. Starting today, women can no longer straddle two-wheeled vehicles because that is deemed "unseemly" and "provocative" to men. This is based on a rigid interpretation of Sharia, which is enforced in Aceh, the only province in Indonesia to do so.

Extremists in the world's most populous Muslim country have praised the decision. In their view, the ban protects women from unwelcomed situations. Conversely, critics from civil society and human rights groups have slammed the new regulation because it would force women to sit dangerously on motorbikes.

Pushed by fundamentalist associations, the new rule follows recent dress code restrictions that prohibit women from wearing jeans and tight clothes. For such groups, the lack of shared notions of morality and modesty must be countered in order to enhance women's character and dignity and make Aceh a more Islamic and civilised province.

"The mayor officially adopted the rule with the support of most local lawmakers," said Dasni Yuzar, a prominent Lhokseumawe figure. However, the bylaw has also been fiercely criticised.

Yustina Rostiawati, from the National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan), said that the new rule "does not serve the people", and will likely have negative consequences in terms of road security.

For anthropologist, Teuku Kemal Fasya, originally from Aceh, the measure could widen the gap between moderate Muslims and Islamists in the province "to the benefit of extremist groups".

Aceh is Indonesia's westernmost province. It is also the only jurisdiction in the country where Sharia is enforced. Agents from the morality police roam the streets enforcing moral regulations.

Under former Governor Irwandy Yusuf, a former guerrilla leader, relations between majority Muslims and non-Muslim "outsiders" were relatively quiet and harmonious.

This has changed recently. Minorities have been attacked and fundamentalists have gained ground.

After many years of exile in Sweden, Zaini Abdullah, a former head of the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM), won the provincial elections in April 2012 pledging to fight corruption and implement Islamic law.

In fact, the right to apply Sharia was the major condition separatist rebels wanted from the central government in Jakarta to lay down their weapons. However, this has led to growing sectarian tensions, including acts of violence against Christian groups, and the closure of their places of worship.

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