A woman in Indonesia could face a public caning of nine lashes after she was accused of having an affair with a married man, gang-raped by eight men, and turned over to Islamic police last week in the conservative Aceh province in the western part of the country.
The 25-year-old widow reported that she was attacked by a group of men who allegedly found her with the married man at her home early on May 1. The men apparently then gang-raped her, beat the 40-year-old man, and dumped sewage on both of them. Afterwards she was taken to Aceh’s Islamic authorities — not to report the incident, but to be charged for violating local religious law.
For more than a decade, Aceh has been an autonomous province and the only one in the secular country with the official authorization to enforce Sharia law. Sharia is a legal framework based on a reading of traditional Islamic law stemming from the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. It often imposes strict punishments including lashes, death by stoning, and cutting off limbs.
In 2001, Aceh’s parliament began approving laws against acts such as gambling and drinking, while imposing a dress code mandating women wear headscarves and avoid tight pants — all falling under Sharia code. The province held its first public caning in 2005, while the parliament added more Sharia violations to the criminal code in 2009, with the creation of stricter punishments such as being stoned to death.
The final decision against the woman in this case is pending a further investigation, but the head of Islamic Shariah Law in the East Aceh district, Ibrahim Latief, issued a recommendation that both the married man and widowed woman should be caned nine times for violating religious law.
According to Latief, the pair admitted to having sex previously and were about to have sex then before they were interrupted by the men barging into their home. He said they were in violation of Shariah law by being in the room together.
Muhamad Ali, an Islamic studies professor at the University of California, Riverside, told VICE News that intolerance and lack of education have led to a more conservative practice of Islam in Aceh. And, while not necessarily common, this is not the first incident where apparently average people have taken Islamic justice into their own hands.
'In the view of the officials these are two different cases, she was having an affair, that’s one case. But she was raped, that’s another.'
“In some cases, maybe ordinary people believe they have to punish the person, give them a lesson by doing this rape for example,” Ali said, “and sometimes they just make use of the situation.”
The eight men who allegedly participated in the gang-rape have not evaded police attention. Three of the men have been arrested and questioned, including a 13-year-old boy who would face adult charges.
"It will be too lenient if they just received the same punishment of nine strokes,” Latief said, referring to the fact that the men could also be sentenced to a public caning. Their alleged crime carries a 15-year maximum penalty.
According to Ali, who specializes in Islam in Indonesia, officials in Aceh are looking at this incident as two separate crimes and feel the need to prosecute both.
“In the view of the officials these are two different cases, she was having an affair, that’s one case. But she was raped, that’s another,” Ali said.
Unfortunately, Ali said this shows how women have become victims under the formalization of Sharia law in Aceh. He explained that it has led to discrimination against women as officials focus more on their violations, such as breaking dress code or having affairs. Moreover, Ali is not certain that the men will be prosecuted to the full extent in this case.
“I’m still not sure if they are actually doing that, I’m not very optimistic,” Ali said. “They will focus on the woman, not the eight men and that’s the problem.”
This incident, however, has brought a public outcry. Destika Gilang Lestari, the coordinator of the Aceh Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, told the Jakarta Globe that the attack was unacceptable and a violation of criminal law.
'My fear is that there are changes, pushes and thinking that tend toward turning this country into a non-secular one.'
“The rape of a woman accused of having violated Islamic law is a barbaric act,” Lestari said on May 6.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono today spoke at an event about protecting Indonesia’s status as a secular state.
“My fear is that there are changes, pushes and thinking that tend toward turning this country into a non-secular one. Secularity is final, and this is an important legacy that we have inherited from Sukarno and the other founders of this republic,” Yudhoyono said at the speech in Bali, referring to Sukarno, the country’s founding president in 1945.
Yudhoyono’s comments came while the president was accepting a statesmanship award. While the leader has been applauded for his civic service during his last few months in office, many have criticized his human record. It has also been under his tenure that Shariah law took greater hold in Aceh.
However, Ali believes it has been the local politics, history, and culture in Aceh that have played the main role in the development of more strict Islamic law. He said the Aceh interpretation has focused on the criminal law, instead of areas like economy, environment, and education. According to Ali, the way to veer from the more conservative interpretations is to concentrate more on development and the needs of the people.
“There needs to be a reinterpretation of Islamic law so that Islamic law can ensure stability and prosperity,” said Ali. “It shouldn’t focus on crimes because they are just a result of problems with poverty and intolerance.”
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