Indonesia: Islamic law by the back door

Half an hour’s drive from Indonesia’s parliament, the civilian police in the district of Tangerang go on patrol every evening.

A dozen men, crammed into the back of a pick-up truck, cruise the dimly-lit streets, looking for anywhere serving alcohol or any woman they think might be a prostitute.

The municipal government in Tangerang has banned both alcohol and “any behaviour that suggests prostitution”.

It is one of a number of districts which, despite the fact Indonesia is a secular state, have recently brought in local Islamic-style laws.

On the night of my visit, the patrol was doing spot-checks on the night-time vegetable market, some food stalls near a busy road and a patch of scrubland the police say is a favourite spot for sex workers. They found nothing.

But many people in the area say it is not only prostitutes who get picked up by the patrol.

Lilis lives with her husband and two children on the outskirts of Tangerang. Just over a year ago, she was arrested by the civilian police while waiting for a taxi on her way home from work.

The police could not reach her husband, so Lilis was fined and jailed as a prostitute.

She told me the arrest had left her shocked and traumatised, that she was now afraid to go anywhere on her own, and that even when she was out with her husband, the sight of the civilian police sent her into a panic.

Fear of arrest

Since her arrest, Lilis has lost her job, and has had to move house.

She rarely goes out in public now, and has begun wearing a headscarf in the hope it will make her less of a target.

“My daughter is afraid to go too far from the house,” Lilis told me. “She’s afraid people will talk about her the way people talked about me.”

“The authorities say they only catch prostitutes, but that’s not true. Lots of women simply come back late from work or school.”

Tangerang is an industrial area, and the evening shift at many of the factories here finishes late – sometimes 10 or 11pm.

One of the problems, say campaigners, is that the regulation against prostitution is worded vaguely – it simply bans any behaviour that suggests prostitution, and that means it is down to individual patrols to judge whether a woman is breaking the law.

But the head of Tangerang’s patrol, Pak Lutfi, told me that the civilian police was being blamed unfairly.

“We look for prostitutes,” he told me. “For instance those who stand in improper places, who don’t stand at bus stops. We’re sure they’re prostitutes but ultimately we let the judge decide.”

But it is not only the way in which these laws are being enforced that is sparking a debate.

Many civil and human rights groups are challenging them on constitutional grounds as well.

One of those campaigning for their abolition is Musdah Mulia, head of the Council on Religious Pluralism.

“We would like the government to uphold the values of democracy,” she told me, “and to be firm towards any attempt to divert from democracy”.

“There’s a lack of understanding in our society over what constitutes democracy,” she explained. “And there’s also abuse of regional autonomy; now a lot of groups at local level have used regional autonomy to pass laws based on sharia law.”

Since the fall of the former President Suharto a decade ago, more and more power has been devolved to local governments.

Campaigners like Mulia say that local laws which ban alcohol on religious grounds, or target women in this way, contravene Indonesia’s constitution.

Local support

But the problem for people like Mulia is that these kind of rules are proving popular.

In the streets of Tangerang, most of those out eating supper at the roadside stalls were broadly positive.

“I agree with it,” one man said. “I’m a Muslim. Alcohol and prostitution damages the society and the religion.”

His neighbour agreed. “It’s a good law,” she said. “Prostitution and alcohol have to be banned. If not, the youth here will be lured into doing bad things. We need to give them a good example.”

But another woman thought it was important to educate the police to carry out the rules fairly. “Sometimes the wrong people get caught, so we need to look at how the law is enforced,” she said.

The popularity of these regulations is adding to the government’s headache. It has been under growing pressure to take a stand – to decide once and for all whether local authorities are over-stepping their powers.

But the country’s leaders have so far been reluctant to get involved. And while they look the other way, Indonesia’s rules are changing.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Lucy Williamson, BBC News, Jakarta, BBC, May 11, 2007,

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday May 12, 2007.
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