Over the weekend, a group of nine women and a man went for a bike ride around the Indonesian city of Banda Aceh, shooting—as one does—some group photos and videos to memorialize the carefree jaunt.
Little did they know, however, that those ostensibly harmless mementos would go viral, cause a public outcry, and result in their being tracked down by religious police and compelled to issue a public apology for what authorities characterized as their “revealing” and “sexy” attire.
All 10, it should be noted, appeared to be wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants.
Banda Aceh Mayor Aminullah Usman confirmed to CNN Indonesia that he had ordered local police and the Sharia enforcement entity known as Wilayatul Hisbah (WH) to hunt down the daytrippers.
“Whoever comes to this city, including non-Muslims, must obey and respect our Sharia law,” he said. “I already sent local and religious police to look for the cyclists.”
An Acehnese law, known as Qanun 11/2002, requires “Muslims to dress modestly,” but does not explicitly require everyone to wear Muslim-approved attire.
Nonetheless, police identified the cyclists and managed to track them down, with the purported offenders given religious counseling by an Islamic cleric and made to promise to apologize publicly on social media before being released.
“The 10 people were allowed to leave the police station after receiving a counseling session. We told them to write an apology, and they promised not to make the same mistake,” Irwan, the head of public relations of Banda Aceh City Government, told Kompas. “They will publish the letter on their social media account. We also recorded it when they apologized.”
Wasisto Raharjo Jati, a researcher from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) who has studied the implementation of Sharia law in Aceh, said the local government could have stood to be less hardline in its application of the law, particularly given current circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Morality played a role in their arrest, without any consideration that cycling can reduce stress during a pandemic. I think the Sharia law needs to be more flexible in this context. I also think Acehnese don’t really understand what Sharia actually means,” Jati told VICE News.
The weekend’s furor wasn’t the first time Aceh’s Sharia police have conducted so-called “clothing raids.” In 2018, 26 women and 14 men were stopped for wearing tight clothes and shorts after Sharia police planted themselves in front of the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh, and stopped every passer-by who wasn’t dressed modestly.
A similar operation also took place in 2016 at Pango Bridge in Banda Aceh, with at least 100 stopped and lectured for purportedly inappropriate clothing. Another in 2014 targeted alleged violators around Banda Aceh’s T. Nyak Arif street.
Though the male cyclist involved in the latest sting was arrested as well, the Sharia dress code in Aceh mostly targets women in a way that is “gender-unfair,” Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono told VICE News.
“From my observations, women’ attire is heavily policed. Meanwhile, men are more likely to be punished for immorality, though it’s not uncommon for women to be the scapegoat,” he said, added that lower socioeconomic classes are even more vulnerable.
“Dress codes that appear to be gender-neutral are actually more strict on women. Human Rights Watch’s 2010 report showed the local Islamic customs are applied selectively. Those in power or who have political closeness with influential people are rarely punished for violating the rules,” Harsono said.
Harsono went on to call for a review of the dress code regulations, saying they violate women’s and children’s rights, as well as freedom of expression and religion.
“Many girls are forced to wear something that doesn’t reflect who they are,” he said.