Reading on Acehnese Woman in the Age of Sharia

Mustaghfiroh Rahayu | CRCS 

Tjut Nyak Dien

Jacqueline Aquino Siapno, in an article entitled “Sharia Moral Policing and The Politics of Consent in Aceh”, wrote that Acehnese women are no longer as were described by most of the international reports on Acehnese women whose rights are violated by the application of Islamic sharia. Her experiences during the research show the opposite, that Acehnese women are independent, have high mobility and higher bargaining power over men (matrifocality). Therefore, she offers a different perspective in looking at Acehnese women. This paper is a review on Siapno’s article published in the Journal of Social Difference-Online Vol. 1 Dec. 2011.

Siapno wrote this article departing from her surprise to various international reports on Aceh, as issued by the UN (United Nations), WB (World Bank), ICG (International Crisis Group), HRW (Human Rights Watch), USAID, and others. However, she focused her studies on the HRW report entitled Policing Morality.

Siapno’s surprise starts from the content of the reports stating that a number of violations of women’s rights in Aceh were caused by the application of Islamic sharia law. The report’s conclusion, according to her, was not in accordance with her findings and experiences of ethnographic research in Aceh for years. Her research actually shows that Islam in Aceh is not extreme, but quite flexible, and even syncretic. This conclusion is also supported by the research results of John Bowen in Gayo and several locations in Aceh (Islam, Law and Equality in Indonesia: An Anthropology of Public Reasoning, 2003). Therefore where is the problem? Why is the research reinforced by other researches contradicts the contents of these reports? Is it because there is a fundamental change in Aceh? Is it because the options of reports often more indicated to danger, panic, and rush caused by mediate fact which often reported the implementation of sharia law in of the framework of Aceh Special Autonomy Law? Or is there something forgotten?

Seeing the discrimination against women in Aceh merely through the point of view of the application of Sharia according to Siapno will not provide complete information about the root of discrimination against women in Aceh. She proposed the political-economic analysis perspective to understand what is happening more successfully.

Siapno assessed that the New Order which initially destroyed the family system in Aceh which is egalitarian and gives space to women to freely move up until Aceh could have Sultanah, Tjut Nyak Dien, or GAM’s women. Precisely, the PKK and Panca Dharma Wanita allegedly made Acehnese women have to learn to be subordinate and trapped in the domestic sphere. The Elites agree to the women organizations (PKK and Panca Dharma Wanita) formed by the New Order because they can be a mechanism of control over the women in Aceh who already have a history of rebellion long ago. Included in this context is the part to pave the way to control abundant natural resources in Aceh. I can feel Siapno’s sentiment against the central government (Jakarta) since the third paragraph of her article.

Siapno further said that the process of women domestication continues as Aceh got special autonomy to implement Islamic sharia law. To her, reading report of women’s human rights violations, should not only look at the root of the problem on the Sharia itself, but also the broader context, namely Aceh conflict with the central government which has been very long and also the robbery of natural resources that has occurred hitherto. Putting the domestication of women in the context of the application of sharia in Aceh was tantamount to simplify complex realities and variables.

In her view, Aceh special autonomy is only one of forms of collusion between the Acehnese elites (including ex-GAM) and the central government. This is what she calls as the politics of consent: that is other form of domination on behalf of the people of Aceh on the willingness of regional autonomy. Islamic Sharia is considered as one representation of Aceh, and the Islamic Shari’a is translated by the elites and the central government to maintain morality, especially women. Accentuation of the sharia implementation on issues related to women, again according to Siapno, is done in the context of controlling the Acehnese women’s power which had been previously outstanding. Thus, the implementation of Sharia is a bandwagon effect of real root, the power relation between the central government and the local Acehnese elites.

Politic of consent which has derivative moral policing; according to Siapno is part of the control tactic as well as politics of inaction from the central government over Aceh. With willingness and moral arrangement, if conflicts happen in Aceh, it will be no longer vertical conflict (Aceh and central government), but it will be a horizontal inter-community conflict in Aceh.

Siapno’s analysis model is interesting, because she criticized the human rights and women rights approaches on problems that occurred in Aceh. In this context she was about to say: the reports very well indeed used accurate data about violence, but living in Aceh is not as sordid as described. Moreover, the root is limited to the application of Sharia. Acehnese women are very intelligent and have high resilience to deal with the pressures they face. Therefore, if a party wants to make a statement, it should look at the issue more comprehensively. However, excessive sentiment against the central government in the context of special autonomy and the application of sharia in Aceh also will cause problems. She views that Islamic sharia law is solely order of the central government as a control. For me, in this context, Siapno forget at least two things; first, the local dynamics and second, the global trend in those times.

Reform in Indonesia triggered not only political liberalization and strengthening of ethno-nationalism, but also fundamentalism. Although Islam in Aceh is quite flexible and syncretic, yet so formalized, diversity of views and Islamic thought are reduced. It would have to be returned and based on original texts which are different with how the Acehnese people understand and apply them in everyday life. It means, to some limits, regardless of the interests behind it, domestication of women is justified by formal religious interpretations contained in qonun.

In a global context, there was a resurgence of Islamic power in various parts of the world. The phenomenon suspected by Huntington as the substitute for panorama of post-cold war global politics by becoming what he described as the age of Muslim wars. This revival according to Fukuyama (1999) cannot be separated from the increasing access to data and information on the Muslim community, awareness of the distinct Islamic identity with other identities, and the response to the failure of secular governments in improving welfare of the community, even made ineffective, politically and legally discriminated, and treated with mega elite corruption and luxurious lifestyle. Among the resurrection expression is “romanticism” and a passion for implementing Islamic sharia in the life of the state and society.

Thus, in my opinion it is to simplifying about how Siapno views the problem of Islamic sharia implementation in Aceh by accusing the central government (Jakarta) as a scapegoat. There are many variables when today we see Acehnese women suffer from discrimination. Obviously, the issue of economic politics is one of them. One important question that can be asked to Siapno is, if Dharma Wanita, PKK, and others are concluded as taming instruments, whereas these organs have also been there when Siapno conducted initial research, why they produce a different conclusion? Acehnese women remain independent; have a high mobility and higher bargaining power over men as she had observed in her research. On the other hand, a report regarding the condition and current condition of women in Aceh also signaled that there have been important shifts in Aceh which requires deeper study.

However critical review of Siapno has provided two important contributions on how to look at Acehnese women issue more comprehensively. First, Siapno enriches the perspectives in reading problem with the political economy analysis. The analytical model allows us to look at the issue of women in Aceh within the framework of central-local power relations and economic interests involving global actors in Aceh. Second, Siapno opens new avenues to further study and research Acehnese women with a more comprehensive approach, so that it covers all the important variables needed to understand the problem. It was even more important to put policy-research or development program frameworks, which needs multi-analysis and multi-approaches.

The writer is a researcher at the Center for Religious and Cross Cultural Studies (CRCS), UGM. Currently, she is a postgraduate student at University of Humanistics, Utrecht, The Netherlands.

This post is also available in: Indonesian


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