Dating is hard. Sometimes the stress of opening up that dating app just to weed through a sea of unsolicited dick pics, would-be ghosters, and awkward first conversations is just too much. But here, in Aceh, Indonesia's most conservative province, dating isn't just hard—it's nearly impossible.
“In my village, I was too scared to date anyone," said Ranti, a 24-year-old university student. "Now that I’m in the city and in university, I’m trying it out, but in secret because I’m afraid my family will find out."
Aceh is the only province in Indonesia allowed to enforce Sharia Law on top of the regular national legal system. This system of Islamic law even comes with its own police — the Wilayatul Hisbah, or Sharia police — and these officers are tasked with, among other things, cracking down on the very thing that defines dating: unmarried couples spending time alone.
Watch the VICE on HBO doc on what it's like to live under Aceh's Sharia Law:
So that afternoon spent getting to know your crush over a cup of coffee—illegal. Those romantic evenings relaxing on one of Aceh's beautiful beaches watching the sunset—forbidden. And don't even think about anything less innocent than a very public date—sexual contact between unmarried couples is punishable by caning. That's why most of the people interviewed by VICE in this story said they would never go to their significant other's home.
“It’s the same as suicide,” said Cut Indra Puspita, a 26-year-old resident of the provincial capital Banda Aceh.
How do young people even date in Aceh? Simple — they break the rules. Clarissa, a university student in Banda Aceh who, like everyone quoted in this story, declined to use her full name because she's talking about breaking the law, told VICE that she goes to great lengths to plan a date with her sweetheart, often down to the exact minute and the route home.
"We would rather meet in a quiet place, like a beach in the late afternoon," she told VICE. "But we don't do this routinely. And we have to be home before the Maghrib (evening) prayer."
All this secrecy comes with a good reason. If a couple is caught by the Sharia police, they risk, for a first offense, little more than a stern talking-to and the involvement of their parents. But instances of women being publicly caned just for sitting too close to a man (khalwat) have been on the rise in the past three years. And those convicted of sex outside of marriage (zina) can be flogged with a rattan cane up to 100 times under the province's Sharia Law.
In the course of this story, VICE's reporter spoke to dozens of young people living in Aceh about how, and where, they date and a single location kept being mentioned time and time again—the coffee shop. Coffee shops are wildly popular in Aceh, partially because they grow some amazing coffee in the province and partially because all bars—and alcohol—are illegal, so where else are you going to hang?
Coffee shops provide the perfect cover for young lovers. They're crowded, full of both male and female customers, and usually don't attract the suspicions of the Sharia police. By hiding the crowd, young couples are able to chat and sit close(ish) to each other without risking a run-in with the authorities.
But, even at a place as safe as a coffee shop, young couples still need to only meet during daylight hours and make sure they are home by evening prayers.
“We never go out at night," Clarissa said. "We date in the afternoon, on weekends, or holidays. We can make excuses then like we're studying with friends in a coffee shop or something. We’ll do anything we can to meet."
But these coffee shops might not be safe spaces for long. In Bireuen, a small coastal city more than 100 kilometers from Banda Aceh, unmarried couples are forbidden from sitting at the same table in a cafe. Women are also not allowed to go out of their house without a relative or "proper companion," after 9 pm, according to local government laws.
These new laws were drafted to combat exactly what we're talking about here—the use of coffee shops and cafes for dates. Local businesses were told they didn't need to enforce the law themselves, the Sharia police would handle that. But even with the loophole, most coffee shops saw their businesses dramatically decline, Kautsar, a local politician, told CNN Indonesia.
"This regulation has reduced economic activity," he said. "The coffee shops are empty now and business is pretty sluggish."
The beaches too have become a no-go zone for young lovers. Dedy Syahputra, 28, said that these days the beaches were a popular spot for patrols by the Sharia police. It's so hard to be single in Aceh that it's no wonder so many young couples get married so early, he said.
“We don’t know where else we can go,” Dedy said. “It’s better to just jump straight into marriage instead of having the risk of being caught dating constantly hanging over our heads.”
Soni, an upper-middle class college student, paid to get the windows of his car heavily tinted to avoid the prying eyes of religious authorities. But sometimes, the only way to ensure some privacy is to leave Aceh altogether. Soni said that wealthier city kids like him travel some 600 kilometers to the city of Medan, North Sumatra, "taking a vacation" to a city where local values are far less conservative and Sharia Law isn't enforced.
"My friends do it all the time," he told VICE.
Soni said that the environment in Aceh was far too restrictive for young lovers. Especially when the Sharia police decide to get your families involved in the matter.
“We date because we want to, it has nothing to do with anyone else,” Soni said. “If it’s a sin, then that’s on us and not anyone else.”