A Sharia policeman lectures girls for wearing jeans. Photo: Joko Sutranto.

Sharia police in the Indonesian province of Aceh are stopping women dressed in jeans and forcing them to change into long government issued skirts.

The semiautonomous province on the northern island of Sumatra has the highest proportion of Muslims in the country. In order to bring an end to decades of fighting between Muslim separatists and the army, the national government consented to the adoption of Sharia law in Aceh in 2002. To enforce the new laws, a special unit of police, called Wilayatul Hisbah or "the vice and virtue patrol", was established.

On 26 May, the West Aceh district of the province intensified their crackdown on women wearing tight fitting trousers by issuing the local police with 20,000 long skirts. Women who are stopped at checkpoints for breaching the bylaw are now furnished with a skirt and have their trousers confiscated. The women cannot be arrested however.

Along with the law - which was passed in 2005 and demands loose fitting, long-sleeved tops and a long headscarf which covers the neck - the Aceh province has also brought in laws which ban homosexual relations, the consumption of alcohol, and relations between unmarried people of the opposite sex. The most recent law, passed in parliament in September 2009, will see adulterers stoned to death if it is passed by the provincial governor.

The regulations have shocked human rights activists in the rest of Indonesia, which is a secular state whose 200 million Muslims follow a moderate form of the religion.

Fashion police in action

A checkpoint, or “razia”, on the Simpang Mesra crossroads in Banda Aceh on 4 May 2010, where 194 people were stopped, lectured and registered as offenders (the government-issued skirts were yet to come into force). Photos taken by Joko Sutranto. Posted on Flickr by anonymous.

Police check each vehicle.

A lecture is given to jeans-wearers.

The offenders' names and ID numbers are registered.

“People here are surprised by just how constraining Islamic law is in practice”

Sri Wahyuni is head of women's affairs at the Aceh People's Party and a researcher at the University of Syiah Kuala.

The problem is that the clothing policy in Aceh is confusing for women. For a start, almost all women in Aceh wear long pants rather than a skirt. After all, our traditional dress comprises long pants and a blouse. No skirt. Secondly, regulations differ between districts; but in West Aceh [where the skirts are being distributed] the law applies not only to residents but also to Muslim women who are only visiting the district.

As a result, people are nervous. On the one hand they are happy because their religious beliefs are being formally acknowledged, but on the other hand they are surprised by just how constraining Islamic law is in practice. What we have in Aceh is a silent majority; people keep their mouths shut because they're afraid to resist and to get called an ‘enemy of Islam'. There is no institution that is tough enough to fight against this level of intimidation.

As for the national government, Jakarta does not care that Islamic law is causing trouble here. But the locals still have a very limited understanding of Islamic law; all they ‘know' is that Islamic law is a good thing. But until now they never thought about the practical implications of it.

I think I will leave Aceh if the situation gets worse. I worry about the development of my two daughters. I want them to live in an environment that reflects freedom, where there are no religious or faith-bound restrictions."

Caught trying to jump a checkpoint

An Aceh-based blogger posted this photo of a newspaper report on his blog. The woman pictured had tried to drive through a checkpoint without stopping. One of the policemen attempted to stop her, knocking her off the vehicle. The blogger who cited the story prefers to remain anonymous.