Islamic police in Aceh, Indonesia, patrol daily for women wearing
tight clothes and unmarried couples sitting too close.
"Excuse me," says Iskandar, as his mobile phone beeps for the
umpteenth time in the past half hour. It's another anonymous tip-
off, alerting him to a young couple who have been seen spending time
Iskander is head of the Wilayatul Hisbah, a special police unit
that enforces Islamic law, or sharia, in the Indonesian province of
Aceh. Teams of his officers patrol the Acehnese capital several
times a day, looking for unmarried couples, women in close-fitting
clothes or not wearing an Islamic headscarf, and anyone drinking
alcohol or gambling.
Aceh - known as the "Veranda of Mecca" because Islam entered
Indonesia there centuries ago - has long been the most devout spot
in the world's most populous Muslim nation.
But the energy with which the 1,500-strong Wilayatul Hisbah - or
Wi-Ha, as they are known - are carrying out their job has alarmed
some Acehnese, as well as human rights groups, politicians, and
Islamic law makes inroads
The province, on the western tip of Sumatra island, home to about
4 million people, won the right to implement Islamic law in 2001,
after being granted semi-autonomy as part of efforts to end a
decades-long separatist war. Sharia has been enforced with
increasing vigor since the 2004 Asian tsunami, which many people
interpreted as a divine warning, and last September the provincial
parliament approved a new penalty for adulterers: stoning to death.
Aceh is not alone. Across Indonesia, dozens of local governments -
given wide scope to enact their own laws under a decentralized
system - have adopted Islamic regulations on dress and behavior. In
parts of Central Java and South Sulawesi provinces, female civil
servants are now obliged to wear headscarves or risk losing their
While the trend threatens to undermine Indonesia's reputation for
having a relaxed approach to Islam, it does not appear to have wide
support. At national elections last year, the share of the vote won
by Islamic parties plummeted.
In Aceh, many people say they abhor the stoning penalty - yet to
be signed into law - although few will criticize it publicly for
fear of being branded bad Muslims. But enforcers of a stricter
approach to Islam appear to be gathering momentum. Public canings
have been carried out, and earlier this month women were banned from
wearing tight trousers in one district of Aceh.
In his dilapidated office in Banda Aceh, Iskandar applauds the
crackdown. "In our religion, it's forbidden to wear tight clothes,
because they can show the body shape and arouse men's desire," he
says. "It's all about protecting women and increasing respect for
Busting up tete-a-tetes
On a recent afternoon, 12 of Iskandar's officers - six men and
six women, their olive uniforms crowned by baseball caps and
scarves, respectively - headed out to Banda Aceh's harbor area,
where young people often congregate. …