Indonesia: Women of the Morality Police Fight for Islam, One Sinner at a Time

Publication Date: 
August 18, 2010
The Jakarta Globe
Female Shariah Police officers gearing up to patrol the streets of Banda Aceh before Friday prayers. (JG Photo)


Banda Aceh. On a recent Friday afternoon, the face of a young woman detained at a Shariah Police station in Aceh’s provincial capital Banda Aceh was contorted in anger.

The 21-year-old Aceh native was so upset that she refused to give her name. The girl was arrested by Shariah Police officers at a beauty salon where she was allegedly offering sex in exchange for money.

She nodded when a Jakarta Globe reporter asked her if the prostitution allegation was true.

The man she was accused of propositioning was also arrested, and was being detained in a separate room. The could both face public caning if found guilty.

“We caught them during the transaction. She has been repeatedly warned,” said Nur Aminah, a female officer with the Wilayatul Hisbah, the Shariah Police.

Nur, 35, is in charge at this station. An imposing figure in her dark-green uniform, she has spent the last five years fighting immoral behavior.

Fifteen female officers work alongside 35 men at Nur’s station. They are part of a force of 6,300 officers in Aceh, including 120 in Banda Aceh, according to Marzuki Abdullah, the provincial head of the Shariah force.

He says more are needed to monitor Banda Aceh’s 250,000 residents.

On this day, Nur was organizing female officers for what she calls “Friday Patrol,” which consists of driving around in a pickup truck to guarantee that all Muslim men are performing Friday prayers. “That is why today’s patrol consists of female officers only,” she said.

“We are making sure that Muslim men are in the mosques praying, because it is Allah’s command,” she said. The non-devout are warned to go to Friday prayers; formal charges could follow for repeat offenders.

Nur refused a request by the Globe to ride with the female officers in the back of the truck. “People will think you are a Shariah law violator and might throw stones or bottles at you,” she warned.

Instead, the Globe tagged along at a discreet distance in a car.

A graduate of Banda Aceh’s Ar-Raniry Islamic State University, Nur said she joined the force in 2005 because “there were limited opportunities in the job market.”

Nur soon began to enjoy her job, however, because she feels that helping fellow Muslims to obey God’s Law, as she calls it, is a good deed.

“If you don’t follow guidance from the Holy Koran, it will backfire on you,” she said with the spirit of righteousness that has become a hallmark of the Shariah Police force since it was established in 2004 as part of Aceh’s special autonomy.

But many residents have criticized the officers’ militaristic behavior as counterproductive to winning the hearts and minds of the Acehnese in a region that was rocked by decades of protracted civil war between the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) and the separatist Free Aceh Movement.

“I don’t care about them,” said Maliyati, a female hotel worker. “They behave badly when they are off duty, so how can we respect them?”

Evi Narti Zain, who works with a human rights NGO, said, “Their behavior shows that subconsciously, militaristic hegemony has succeeded after decades of conflict.”

Indeed, there’s been no shortage of friction between provincial residents and the Shariah force over the years, including mob attacks against officers accused of abusing their power.

Shariah officers also described strained relations with the public, ranging from people refusing to heed their orders to physical altercations. “A man threw a coffee table at me once,” Nur said, smiling. “That’s part of the job.”

Interestingly, many officers join the Shariah force after failing to get into the Armed Forces.

Jalaluddin, a 32-year-old Shariah policeman in Meulaboh, West Aceh, joined the force after coming up short four times on the test to enlist in the Army.

“I failed so many times, I decided to join the Shariah Police in the end,” he told the Globe.

The same goes for 29-year-old Abdurrazak, another Shariah Police officer in Meulaboh.

“It’s a decent job with good pay,” he said proudly. “I’m helping to improve people’s morals here.”

For Abdurrazak, the job is about curbing temptation. He said he can’t stand the sight of women wearing tight pants and leggings.

“That is just too sexy,” he said.

Junidar, a 37-year-old female Shariah officer in Banda Aceh, also gave up her goal of being an Army officer; she was too short to pass the physical.

“It’s too bad that I don’t meet the minimum height requirements,” she said. “So I applied for this job and got accepted.”

Six years after the forces’ creation, Nur conceded that it’s not easy being a watchdog for the morality of society.

“Sometimes I am frustrated that after five years of working as a Shariah Police officer, I see no significant change in society’s morals,” Nur said.

“So many punishments for violations are carried out publicly, but I still don’t see people foregoing sinful acts.”