By Nurdin Hasan
Local officials and rights activists on Friday slammed a regency of Indonesia’s devoutly Muslim Aceh province after it banned unmarried couples from dining together in restaurants and advised eateries not to serve unaccompanied women after 9 p.m.
On Aug. 30, the Islamic affairs office of Bireuen regency issued a circular warning that a man and a woman sitting at the same table in a restaurant while unmarried was haram, or forbidden in Islam. But Acehnese and other Indonesians criticized the directive after a copy of the circular gathered traction on social media this week.
“It will make life more difficult for women and the local people in general, many of whom make a living working in myriad coffee shops and other eateries in Bireuen, which has a vibrant nightlife,” said Kautsar Yus, a member of the provincial legislative council from the Aceh Party.
“This kind of thing will only cause indignation at home and abroad, creating the impression that Aceh is a sinister place, when in fact it is not the case,” he told BenarNews.
The circular also warned establishments against employing lesbians, gays, bisexuals or trans-genders.
Kautsar said the directive would be hard to enforce and was unlikely to be obeyed by establishments, because many youths often spend long hours at coffee shops.
However, the head of Bireuen’s sharia office, Jufliwan, said the guidelines were intended to protect the honor of women.
“If they want to eat or drink, they can go with their kin,” Jufliwan said.
He said the order would serve as a preventive measure, and violators would only be reprimanded.
“We will advise them in a good manner. If they are unaccompanied, they are prone to street harassment,” he said. “This is for their own good.”
Aceh is the only province in Indonesia with authority to implement Sharia, the Islamic law, as mandated by its status as a “special region” with a degree of autonomy.
Sharia police in Aceh began educating the public about a broadening of the Islamic penal code in 2015. Gambling, alcohol consumption and sex out of marriage are among offenses punishable by caning in the region.
Canings have drawn international criticism and recently became a contentious issue in Southeast Asia. By contrast, in Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Thursday attacked the practice of caning in public, saying the public caning of two women in Terengganu state this week had “tarnished Islam’s reputation.”
The two women were arrested and sentenced after they were found guilty of attempting to commit same-sex relations.
In April, Aceh officials agreed to move public canings of Sharia law violators indoors, to avoid public spectacles that draw hundreds of jeering spectators.
Authorities undertook the move following widespread criticism after two men were lashed 83 times each in May last year. The two men were found having sex, authorities said.
But public lashings were still being carried out in July. Banda Aceh police said that they were still awaiting “technical guidelines on how to implement it in prisons,” away from public view.
‘Careful consideration of the impact’
The head of the Islam Rahmatan lil’alamin Forum, Teuku Muhammad Jafar Sulaiman, described the Bireuen regency’s ruling as “a form of discrimination and inhumane.”
“Why is it always women who are targeted? A careful consideration of the impact should be made before responding to a phenomenon in society,” he said. “It is impossible to implement because it is the nature of people to socialize.”
Muazzinah Yacob, a rights activist in Bireuen, questioned the legal basis for the directive.
“Has a study been conducted that indicates that unaccompanied women cause social unease?” Muazzinah told BenarNews.
“God forbid that this is just another sensational ruling without substance because Islamic sharia should be a blessing for the universe,” she said. “[It’s] not a tool of arbitrariness for the power holders.”
Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta contributed to this report.