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An Indonesian City Wants a Curfew, but Only for Teenage Girls

In a quest for morality, Banda Aceh is discussing night curfews for girls to prevent "bad behavior."

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Karaoke's pretty harmless for most of us. But, in one Indonesian city, it's a catalyst for some deeply concerning public safety measures.

One Saturday night last month, 16 teenagers went to Galeri Kafe Musik in Banda Aceh, the capital of Indonesia's autonomous Aceh province. Just before midnight, the wilayatul hisbah—the police force charged with enforcing Islamic Sharia law in the conservative region—arrested them for alleged disorderly conduct.

Presumably, lawmakers have had enough of Aceh's teenage debauchery, requesting a night curfew according to media reports—but only for girls.

Provincial lawmaker Farid Nyak Umar resounded the order, saying, "Raids like this must continue. Besides that, we hope the Banda Aceh municipal government will study and immediately implement a night curfew for teenage girls."

Pressed on how this effectively discriminates against women, he responded simply, "We don't want to discriminate against women, but this regulation must be made."

Aceh is notorious for its strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, unique in an otherwise moderate Muslim-majority Indonesia. The province was granted special status in 1959 that allows it to administer its own laws, albeit within the confines of the Indonesian constitution.

In December 2013, the Aceh provincial administration and legislative council approved a bylaw obliging every Muslim—and non-Muslim—in Aceh to follow Sharia. That includes the prohibition of liquor, affectionate contact between unmarried couples, and not wearing a veil for women. When violated, archaic punishments including public canings may follow.

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In its quest for morality, Banda Aceh has enforced night curfews before. In 2012, the city ordered students to stay at home after nightly prayer, in a bid to prevent "bad behavior" and improve education. This time, though, the singling out of only women—despite male arrests—has started a larger conversation in Aceh among the youth—and spreading through social media—about gender discrimination, as well as the role religion should play in public policy in general.

In the following 24 hours, Twitter has lit up, expressing everything from shame to snark. The sarcastic hashtag #BandaAcehMasukAkal (#BandaAcehMakesSense), propagated by the city's youth against the measure, rose to the top trending topics nationwide.

The ensuing feminist Twitterstorm highlights a widening gap between the younger generation and conservative elders. Though not all youth are against Sharia law in general, many see the curfew as crossing yet another line on women's rights.

As politicians insist the measure will protect women from sexual harassment and other nighttime misdemeanors, people point out the unfair blame society puts on women when rape or harassment occurs—an issue that plagues even Western democracies, let alone Sharia Aceh.

(Translation: In Banda Aceh especially, behind every situation women are always blamed.)

Women's rights activist Tunggal Pawestri in particular hit back—offering instead that a night curfew be placed on men so that women can finally be safe from harassment.

(Translation: What if those forbidden to go out at night were the men? Women would be safer at night.)

What makes things more interesting is that Banda Aceh just got its first ever female mayor, Illiza Sa'aduddin Djamal, who took office last June. But instead of being a champion for women, she instead sided with the Sharia police in censuring the teens arrested at the karaoke venue. Consequently, she, too, was not spared from Twitter criticism.

(Translation: Maybe she fears competition, fears there will be another female mayor. So women are restricted.)

Beyond Twitter, civil society groups have also reacted against the curfew. A coordinator for the City Youth Forum, Rahmat Hasbi, condemned the proposed regulation.

"Isn't it our experience that a policy approach of this model is relatively arbitrary and authoritarian?" He said at a press conference. "Because 16 teenagers were arrested for mingling at a karaoke venue until midnight, must every teenage girl in Banda Aceh face the consequences and have their freedoms limited?"

But not all share that opinion. The vice president of the National Commission of Indonesian Youth's Aceh chapter, Rahmi Maulidati, supports the measure.

"I'm sure the city government has good intentions to save women from sexual harassment, nighttime wanderings that aren't beneficial, and to protect women from things that aren't good," she told Lintas Nasional. She did, however, go on to slam the double standard, calling out men who are allowed to play dominos until dawn.

Double standards or no, Banda Aceh's teenage women will be urged to spend their evenings at home for the foreseeable future.

Follow Aria on Twitter.