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The truth about Islamic dress in Aceh

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30 August 2010 12:25

Aaron Connelly is a Fulbright scholar and visiting fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta. He visited Banda Aceh for The Interpreter; earlier posts here, here, here and here.

In early May, the elected head of the district of South Aceh ordered all the civil servants in the district to shave off their beards. 'This is Indonesia, not Iran,' Husin Yusuf, the district head, told the local paper. 'Civil servants will be good role models for the people.' Unshorn civil servants arriving at the office would be turned away, he said.

Many Indonesian Muslims wear a token amount of facial hair on their chin as a sign of their faith, though most Indonesian Islamic scholars say it is not required. Within Islamic jurisprudence outside of Indonesia, the issue is more hotly debated, and some Indonesian Muslims who look to the today's Middle East for spiritual guidance grow longer beards. The Jakarta Post noted that some of the more religious civil servants thought Husin's order unreasonable — as well might many progressive citizens in Western countries.

Husin's condescension toward more conservative forms of Islam stands in stark contrast to the image of Aceh painted by the overseas press when it runs the odd wire report on bylaws demanding the province. These condensed reports, in isolation, miss the nuance of the situation, including the uneven enforcement of shariah bylaws across the province's nineteen districts and municipalities, and the opposition to further draconian measures among most provincial officials. The governor, his deputy, and the head of the provincial legislature all publicly oppose stricter shariah bylaws.

When I visited Banda Aceh late last month, I met many young Muslim women who chose not to wear a headscarf. I asked each of them whether they were concerned that the police unit that enforces some shariah bylaws, the Wilayatul Hisbah (WH), would detain them for not doing so.

Some said they had nothing to worry about because their identity cards indicated that they were not Muslim, or not from Aceh. One Muslim Acehnese aid worker told me the WH never bother her because she looks as though she might not be Acehnese. And of course, contrary to the assertions made by one young correspondent last month in the Sydney Morning Herald, there is no expectation that foreign women will comply with requirements for religious dress.

But Banda, as the provincial capital, is perhaps the most progressive of the province's jurisdictions (and, perhaps not coincidentally, home of the province's most senior female official, Banda's vice mayor).

Some women in other parts of the province have decided that it is better to be safe than sorry, halfheartedly donning a loose cloth around their heads which can be pulled tight should the need arise. The sight of women wearing the headscarf so loosely is unique within Indonesia, where women in other provinces are free to cover or not as a matter of personal preference, and thus either wear it tightly or not at all.

The rules are most vigorously enforced in West Aceh, which was devastated by the 2004 tsunami. The district has made news over the past year as its extremely conservative elected head, Ramli MS, has authorised several extraordinary shariah bylaws, including one forbidding women from wearing tight pants. But such restrictions are the exception, not the norm.

Photo by Flickr user bonbongirl, used under a Creative Commons license.

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