Indonesia: Application of 'Muslim laws' takes toll on women

The New York Times
To a passer-by, the dress and demeanor of Lilis Lindawati would have attracted little attention as she waited in the dark in this busy industrial city for a ride home.
She wore green pants, a denim jacket, beige sandals with modest heels, burgundy lipstick and penciled eyebrows. Her black hair flowed freely, unencumbered by a head scarf, increasingly prevalent in Indonesia but not mandatory.
In a now widely recounted incident, Mrs. Lindawati, 36, was hustled into a government van that clammy February evening by brown-uniformed police, known as tranquillity and public order officers.

"They put about 20 of us in the police station and then went out again to target the hotels," she said, telling the story as she sat on the floor of her family's two-room, $12-a-month rental, her husband beside her.

She was charged with being a prostitute under a new local law forbidding lewd behavior, and in an unusual public hearing attended by local dignitaries and residents, she was sentenced with some of the other women to three days in jail.

Mrs. Lindawati insists she is not a prostitute.

Her case has become a symbol of an increasingly impassioned tussle in Indonesia between those who favor the introduction of Shariah by local governments, and those that assert that this large Muslim country, recognized for its moderation and diversity, must hold firm to its secular Constitution of 1945.

Nearly 30 local governments have introduced Shariah laws or Shariah-inspired legislation, from Aceh in the far north where Shariah laws have lain quiescent on the books for several years but are now being carried out by special Shariah courts, to southern Sulawesi and to small islands farther west.

In Aceh, the province devastated by the tsunami, officers belonging to a special Shariah police unit stop women on the street who do not have their head scarves properly adjusted and often impose fines. In some instances, women have been publicly whipped for being caught in public with men who are not their husbands, said Suraiya Kamaruzzaman, a founder of Flower Aceh, a women's rights group.

In Sulawesi, one of Indonesia's main islands, three southern districts have passed Shariah legislation and are establishing Shariah courts to enforce the laws. Schoolgirls have been sent home for wearing clothes considered insufficiently modest. In some places, women who are government officials must wear a head scarf to work.

To many, the new laws represent stealthy movement toward excessive intrusion of Islam into Indonesia's political process, often with the backing of the Justice and Prosperity Party, a fast-rising Islamic party.

Moderates are battling an anti-pornography bill, backed in the national Parliament by the Justice Party, that would impose a one-year prison sentence for women wearing miniskirts and five years for couples caught kissing in public. In another incident that is interpreted as a sign of growing grass-roots intolerance, a convert to Islam was jailed in a municipality in east Java earlier this year for leading prayers in a national language rather than in Arabic.

Some leading moderates say they worry that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the first directly elected leader of Indonesia and to many the personification of a tolerant Islam, has been too slow to react.

In a speech in early June, Mr. Yudhoyono revived the notion of a state ideology, known as Pancasila, which is generally seen as Indonesia's commitment to secular government and of unity in diversity.

But Pancasila, created by Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno, came into its own as an ideology under General Suharto, the long-ruling authoritarian leader who was toppled in 1998. By the end of General Suharto's rule, Pancasila had fallen in esteem, too, leaving some moderates wondering whether the doctrine remained the best vehicle for reining in the new trend.

"It was a good speech reaffirming Pancasila and condemning Shariah," said T. Mulya Lubis, a prominent lawyer and chairman of the Society for Democracy and Education, "but it was not enough."

More than 50 members of Parliament recently signed a letter urging the president to abolish the Shariah-inspired local laws.

The president, Mr. Lubis said, is overly concerned about offending some of the Islamic parties, particularly the Justice and Prosperity Party, which has supported him in Parliament. "The president believes his persona alone can defeat the Islamists" but that wasn't necessarily the case, the lawyer said.

Mr. Lubis said he planned to take a roadshow of speakers to universities and schools across the country in the coming months to emphasize the moderate traditions of Indonesia.

Not all of the new local laws are enforced by special Islamic courts. The mayor of Tangerang, Wahidin Halim, who initiated the regulation under which Mrs. Lindawati was charged, said he is trying to clean up public morals, not impose Islam.

The Tangerang law that came into force last November banned passionate hugging or kissing, and bans the sale or consumption of alcohol except in upscale hotels. One result, many women say, is that they must be off the streets by dusk.

"The idea is to develop good morality, good behavior, to be a more civilized society," Mr. Wahidin said in an interview in his home garden. "The Islamic parties love my programs, but that doesn't mean we have the same ideology."

Supporters of Mrs. Lindawati are fighting her case on the legal, not ideological or religious grounds. Like most of the new local laws that are intended to govern people's personal behavior, the Tangerang regulation is unconstitutional, said Dedi Ali Ahmad, chairman of the Indonesian Legal and Aid and Human Rights Association in Jakarta.

"Charging someone on the suspicion of prostitution is not enough under the national law," he said. "You cannot arrest someone for just being in a vicinity. They have to have attempted a crime."

The Legal Aid Association was seeking a judicial review of the Tangerang regulation in the Supreme Court, Mr. Dedi said. At the same time, Mrs. Lindawati has filed a defamation suit against the mayor.

In the suit, Mrs. Lindawati contends she was on the street waiting for a bus after coming into the center of town to claim back wages from a restaurant where she worked as a waitress. She said she is so poor — her husband holds a low-paying job as a gym teacher at an elementary school — that she had sold her mobile phone just before her arrest to feed her two teenage children.

"I have done nothing wrong," she said.

June 27, 2006