Young and in love in Indonesia? Beware, in Banda Aceh the sharia police are watching

Unmarried couples face harsh penalties if they break Islamic laws

Banda Aceh

It's almost sunset in Banda Aceh and the locals rush towards Ulee Lheue beach before the barrier goes down. The authorities close access to this popular spot after 6pm, to prevent promiscuity between unmarried couples.

Many families, couples, and groups of friends have arrived early, and enjoy a drink or corn on the cob at one of the food stalls lining the seaside. On the pier by the port, several couples brave the law by sitting closely together, sometimes holding hands. Luckily for them, the sharia police don't seem to be coming this evening. Islamic sharia law was adopted in 2001, a “gift” from Jakarta to quell separatist ambitions in this very religious part of Indonesia. A series of bylaws passed since impose Islamic dress code and forbid gambling, alcohol consumption and “seclusion” between unmarried couples.

Twenty-year old Leonie, chatting with two male friends while watching the sun go down on the sea, is one of the few women around not wearing a headscarf. She has been stopped by the sharia police before, at one of the checkpoints they regularly set up to “advise” people who do not abide by the dress code. Headscarves are mandatory, and wearing tight trousers or shirts, or for men, shorts, are a no-go. Leonie remembers the embarrassment of being reprimanded in public while having to wait with sharia police officers for her parents to come and pick her up. She hasn't learned her lesson though, and still refuses to cover her head. “I sometimes get comments on the street but I don't care, it's my problem.” What will she do if the sharia police come now? “Run,” she laughs.

At the North-Western tip of the Indonesian archipelago, Aceh - Banda Aceh is the capital - is the only province in Muslim-majority Indonesia allowed to partly enforce sharia law, as part of a special autonomy status agreement that put an end to a 30 year conflict between Aceh separatists and the central government in Jakarta.

The sharia police have registered 13,000 offences between 2009 and 2013, the head of the unit, Zulkarnain, tells The Independent. He says “minor violations” of sharia law don't usually end up in the sharia court, even though the law states that three violations to the Islamic dress code requirements are punishable by caning. “This has never been enforced,” he says.

Serious violations, such as adultery and non-marital sex, are handled more severely. At the sharia police headquarters in Banda Aceh, a man and woman in their thirties are being questioned. The unmarried couple were caught having sex at a barber's shop. A suspicious neighbour had alerted the sharia police, a sign, says chief investigator Mazuki Ali, that the people support the sharia law enforcement. The investigation is ongoing, but Mazuki Ali says they face between six and nine strokes of the cane.

Although rarely enforced in Banda Aceh - the last public caning took place in 2007 - the punishment is common in other parts of the province. In the Eastern Aceh town of Langsa, the case of a 25-year-old widow caught last week with a married man by eight men, who raped her as a punishment, has outraged human right activists, especially after local authorities said she will still be caned for adultery. “She can't get caned, she's a victim, what she needs is support,” says Suraiya Kamaruzzaman, director of the women's group Flower Aceh. In the same town in 2010, three sharia police officers raped a 20 year old girl who they had arrested for riding a motorcycle with her boyfriend.

Activists monitoring the implementation of sharia law say abuses are on the rise, especially those committed by self-declared guardians of the law. Destika Gilang Lestari, director of the local human rights NGO, Kontras, says her organisation has recorded many cases of vigilante raids, in which young men often take it on themselves to punish offenders as it pleases them. “A couple was pushed into the river in Banda Aceh just a couple of weeks ago. People get beaten up, doused with sewage water, and they're often too scared to report it,” says Destika Gilang Lestari, who called the Langsa case a “barbaric act” and asked for the heaviest possible punishment. She says perpetrators too often remain unpunished, leading to a “misinterpretation” by vigilantes of what they're allowed to do.

While cases such as the Langsa one undoubtedly tarnish the image of the province, officials insist Islam is practiced in a “tolerant” and “moderate” manner in Aceh. “This is not Afghanistan,” says the head of the sharia police. In 2009, the local parliament added stoning to death as a punishment for adultery in a draft Islamic criminal code, but the then governor of the province rejected it.

Noting 2009 was an electoral year, the head of Aceh's Islamic sharia agency Syarizal Abbas suggests sharia is used as a political tool in parliament. “There seems to be a misinterpretation of what Islamic law is among Parliament members,” he says. “Islam in Acehnese society is very moderate. Implementation of sharia law in Aceh has to be done the soft way, it's more about education than punishment,” he adds.

Several media have reported that the recent adoption of a new Islamic criminal code was taking sharia law to a stricter level by imposing it on everyone, including non-Muslims, but officials strongly deny the claims. “This is absolutely not true,” says Syarizal Abbass. He insists the criminal code is only procedural, meaning it only defines proceedings and not the substance of the law. In any case he says, Aceh's Special autonomy law clearly specifies that the sharia only applies to Muslims. 

For Muslims, who make up for 98 per cent of Acehnese, Islamic law enforcement is getting tougher. The Islamic criminal code adopted last February allows the sharia police to set up detention centres for suspected sharia offenders, and hold them for up to 20 days while their case is being investigated. Activists also say that sharia police raids on hotels and cafes, led by Banda Aceh's acting mayor - a woman - have intensified. Mazuki Ali says patrols do routine checks. “Patrols come at night, they check the hotel registry and if they suspect unmarried couples might be staying there, they check their rooms and IDs,” he says. If couples prove to be unmarried, they're taken to the police station.

Sitting at a cafe in central Banda Aceh, Davi, and two of his female friends, Rita and Ayu, share stories about friends arrested for wearing tight clothes or walking around with someone of the opposite sex. A sharia police truck carrying a dozen officers drives by. “They raided this cafe two weeks ago,” comments 23-year-old Davi. “It's a bit too much. We just hang out, we do nothing wrong.”

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
New Articles
i100... with this review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam