Thursday, November 19, 2009

Syariah Bank

I arrived in Jakarta yesterday, flight one of my four flights home. I'm spending the night here because there are no early morning flights out of Banda Aceh. My Canadian/Indonesian friend (mentioned in earlier posts) insisted on making me a reservation at the hotel that is part of the corporation that his brother used to work for. Quite a good example of a part of Indonesian culture, once you make friends, they always know someone who can get you or sell you what you need and are happy to help. So not only did he make me a reservation at this fancy hotel, and get me his rate so I'm paying about 1/4 of the price, he also had his brother pick me up from the airport. Given how far outside the city the airport is, and how much traffic there was, it was a big favor. In the car on the hour and a half drive to the hotel, I first made pleasant conversation. Asking about his family, how his retirement was going, if it's always rainy in Jakarta, basically New England-esque pleasantries.  But then my curious streak kicked in. He mentioned that he had never been to Aceh although he had lived in Indonesia all his life.  I asked what people in Jakarta thought of Syariah (Sharia) law.

Granted it was a bit of a non-sequitur. He said oh yes yes we have them here too. Confused I asked again, and soon realized he meant Syariah Bank, Islamic banking. This is actually a good example of how pervasive religion is in all sectors here. Similarly to the United States where you can invest in mutual funds that adhere to Christian values, Syariah Banks are described to be more community focused, allowing greater participation and with a greater focus on the common good.  When I explained I meant Syariah law, he said "Oh, we don't like that".

The explanations I've heard about the reasons for Syariah law in Aceh province are quite varied, depending on who you ask. Aceh gained a good deal of autonomy after the 2005 MOU between GAM (Free Aceh Movement) and the Government of Indonesia. Some people say that Syariah law is Aceh's attempt to distinguish itself from the national government. That the motivations are more political than religious. This comes from non-Acehnese and international people I've met.  On the other hand, I've met Acehnese who say that Syariah was forced on Aceh by Jakarta, something like a pacifier. Aceh asked the central government for support, and Jakarta sent along Syariah to quiet them down. Check out the link to a New York Times article to the right if you'd like to read an article from the first perspective.

Day to day, I'm not the person to speak on what Syariah means, especially to women. It only applies to Muslims, and after the influx of ex-pats after the tsunami people are generally very tolerant of westerners, although dressing conservatively and being aware of customs helps.  Generally speaking women cover their heads, but young women often wear tight trendy clothes, but always with legs and at least 1/2 of arms covered. There is a Syariah police, I never met them, but they can reprimand, fine and even imprison people for not following the religious laws. But given that outward expression of those laws can only be seen on women's bodies (there is no dress code for men), it stands to reason that they will be the ones punished, except for those eating or not attending mosque on Fridays.

Then comes the bigger question. The Syariah law here is expanding. Several people have told me that it will never be enforced. But having a law on the books that says a woman must be stoned to death if she is convicted of adultery doesn't bode well. The New York Times article describes members of parliament who disagreed with the law, but didn't vote against it for fear of being called infidels. Regardless of whether these laws are being implemented to force the population to follow the word of the Koran or to cement political power with the religious conservatives, some day a woman will be caught in a very public case of adultery, it's bound to happen. Given that no one spoke up when the law was passed, who will speak up as the preparations for a public stoning begin?

 "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil, is that good men do nothing." - Edward Burke

And in case you were wondering, no, men don't get stoned for adultery.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Please sir... can I have some more?

What's an orphanage for?

It's not something to which  I, or most Americans I'd say, really give much thought.  I even took a look at the one orphanage I know by name, The Home for Little Wanderers. According to the interweb it's not actually an orphanage, but more like a group home.  This is the shift that has taken place in America. A place where children go without their parents is a group home. Most often they go there because the State has decided their parents are not fit to care for them, or on rare occasions they are in fact orphans, and have no extended family able or willing to care for them, so again, the State steps in.  However, if you decide you can't care for your children. What happens? What should happen?

Here in Aceh (I can't speak for all of Indonesia), orphanages are called Panti Asuans. They are often, though not always, associated with Dayahs, which are Islamic boarding schools. I've been to two orphanages so far, as well as have read many reports about an program that took place at and around them, which is part of the evaluation I'm doing. I was utterly surprised when I heard that approximately 80-90% of children in the Panti have at least one parent, many have two. These children are not orphans in the classic sense, only 10% or less are. On one hand surprising given the 30 year civil war plus the tsunami. So what are children with parents doing in an orphanage? Essentially sometimes parents of children from poor families feel that they can't care for their children, in particular they can't afford to send them to school. So they send them to the Panti, thinking that at least that way they will be able to graduate from primary school, many junior high school too. However, the conditions in the Pantis aren't always better than living at home in a poor family. The education is important, but as we've all read, orphanages and group homes are rife with opportunities for abuse and neglect. And with hundreds of children and few staff, and underfunding, it's next to impossible that children will get the attention and care they need.

So what do we take away from this? That in Indonesia parents send their children away in hopes of giving them a better life, whereas in America they are taken after the neglect has occurred? Or that in Indonesia some families have more children than they can care for and give them away to (often religious) institutions, whereas in America the foster system is flawed but functioning.

The goal of the program being evaluated is to discourage families from sending children to orphanages, giving livelihood support to parents to help prevent it and hopefully bring children already in the orphanage back home, as well as to facilitate visits and environmental and hygiene education in the panti. Whether the livelihood support essentially pays families for sending their children to an orphanage has been debated, and whether giving brooms to children so they can sweep up the institution gives a false sense of improvement. But changing the cultural norm of sending children to institutions, assuming they receive better care outside of the family, and discouraging the government from funding Pantis per child, thus encouraging increased enrollment, is all part of the puzzle.

Appropriate care of children is a sensitive issue everywhere, but more importantly, the care of children is a critical issue for parents and caregivers in Pantis alike, because if nothing else, everyone involved seems to truly believe they're doing what is in the best interest of the children.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Best Laugh in a While

Here's the joke of the day. Things to keep in mind when reading... Aceh province has Sharia law, head scarves are mandatory for women, they just passed a stoning law to punish female adulterers, I believe men get jail and a fine. ( So R1 and R2 are about 40, married, kids, very smart, but not so up on current things. R3 is 25 and not married (relatively unusual), owns a couple stores and loves American pop music.

R1 and R2 both dropped their cell phones today, breaking them a bit.

Me: I'm always on the lookout for an unbreakable phone, the one I have right now has a rubber case so it doesn't matter that I drop it all the time.
R3: (starts singing Unbreakable)
Me: You do love pop music don't you
R3: I think everyone wants an unbreakable relationship. Ha ha! To make your relationship unbreakable you also need rubbers, just like your phone!

R3 and I laugh, the other two are confused.
R3: (points to them and says) they don't know about any of that.

Friday, November 13, 2009

What's it to you?

I consider myself an american, with some canadian mixed in, but i've often wondered where, or if, american/north american culture really resides.  It's easy to look at what's around you and see a lack of culture, compared to what appears to be the very rich culture of other groups, like recent immigrants for example, who often make a great effort to preserve (or occasionally reject) their own culture. So here's a list of things that Aceh has made me realize are part of American culture, aside from the obvious ethic and religious differences. More exciting posts to come, but after a long day of car rides and still not speaking Bahasa a list is seeming like a best option.

1. Using a fork and knife to eat, occasionally a spoon. Here hand (only the right one) are choice #1, only a spoon is choice #2.
2. A firm grip with your handshake. Here you touch fingers as women, loose grip as or with men, then touch your heart. Quite a nice gesture when you think about it.
3. Shoes, in the US you take them off when asked. Here you take then off whenever you go inside essentially, including into a health clinic or a gym or school.
4. Passing in front of people. You might apologize in America. Here you crouch a bit and gesture down with your hand as you scurry by, it looks truly apologetic to be interrupting.
5. Toilets. Sitting down and toilet paper in the US. Here everything from a squatting situation to literally peeing on the floor (sorry to be graphic) then you wash it and yourself with a bucket of water from a standing reservoir, out a drain in the back if it was the floor. You roll your pants up to your knees before you do any of this. Flip flops are (sometimes) provided, sometimes not.
6. Paying. In the US it's a negotiation, either you split it or one person pays. Here it seems to be a hard and fast rule that one person pays. Who pays rotates. This made giving out per diem a bit difficult at first, but we figured it out.
7. Sitting. In the US it's generally chairs. Here it's chairs if you're in an office or school, but it's a mat (handwoven often) if you're in a village or mosque.
8. Driving. Other than being on the other side of the road, signals are used entirely differently. For instance going through an intersection on a red light seems okay if you have your hazards on, but I've heard this is just lack of enforcement.
9. Gender relations. Other than the headscarf, sharia law issues, which are currently "under investigation" by yours truly, the amount of personal space is different, although I suppose that's to be expected. Traditional men will not shake my hand, it took weeks to get anyone on my team to sit next to me at lunch, and only the young "rebellious" survey does it regularly. Same at meetings, seating arrangements are by gender to try as much as possible to avoid seating opposite genders together, although this is sometimes not done.
10. Visiting. In the US someone will often offer you a drink if you visit them at their home or office. Here drinks just appear, from mini-fridges and desks and under tables. First come what look like plastic cups of water with seals, which you poke through with a mini straw, then super sweet coffee or tea may come, or if you're in the whole country a whole coconut and a straw or even some cake if they knew you were coming.

That's all for now, I'm open to additions!  I head back to the states on Nov 20th, see everyone then!

Friday, November 6, 2009


I've been spending 10-12 hours a day with three Acehnese who are part of our research team. Through our research we've gone through areas where there was intense damage from the tsunami, as well as damage from the 30 year conflict that ended soon after the tsunami. Very simply, the conflict was between the Indonesian government (GoI) and The Free Aceh Movement (GAM), Gam wanted Aceh to be free from Indonesia, and the government disagreed. Depending on who you ask the conflict had political, religious, cultural and/or economic motives. After the peace agreement was signed in 2005, Aceh was given a good deal of autonomy and former GAM leaders and combatants were elected to local government. For many, though not all, people, GAM members are still local heroes. I went to a cafe run by an ex-combatant and the walls were covered with pictures of him in uniform holding a Kalishnikov rifle. I've sat with mayors who were leaders and members of farming cooperatives who were soldiers.  However, the years of violence and even longer history of tensions hasn't been forgotten, but on the other hand it seems like communities and people who were affected by the conflict are trying to move forward, while holding onto their loyalty to what is now Partai Aceh (political party of GAM). Here's a story I heard more than once over the course of the week with new details being added each time, and from several different people (general gist from a bule (westerner) details from team members).

A while ago, after the peace agreement had been signed, the organization that hired my research team was working in a rural area of Aceh Utara, where the former center of GAM activity was based. This organization hired a new security director who saw it fit to hire security to send to the schools in the former GAM area. He claimed that this security was to protect the school children. However the villagers were suspicious and questioned the security officers. They found ID cards in their bags that identified them as members of the GoI military, then they found disassembled guns. The security officers claimed innocence, saying the guns were broken. While the "security officers", now identified as GoI soldiers (TNI), were tied to a tree, ex-combatants reassembled the guns and shot them into the air. A driver who is still with the organization was my driver this day and he talked about how he was also tied to a tree because he had driven the security to the village, not knowing they were TNI. So with evidence of foul play in hand and soldiers tied to trees, the villagers went to the government with proof that the military was trying to spy on them.
It was later found out that the head of security was in fact high up in the Indonesian military.

A terrible mistake by the organization that could potentially have restarted the conflict. Yet somehow these same villagers, including ex-combatants, spent upwards of an hour telling us how much the organization had helped and how all they really wanted was to earn a living and help the school. They started a farmers' cooperative and 10% of all profits go to the elementary school. Amazing.

Next time... more about GAM, TNI and where Exxon Mobile fits in...

Check out this link for a preview

Thursday, November 5, 2009

JFK the farmer

Just a quick story, we were talking about famous people and got onto the Kennedys...

Indonesian PhD student: I like to know, why are the Kennedys always get killed and die?

Me: Well I'm not really sure, I don't think there's just one reason...

PhD Student: You know what we are thinking? We are thinking the Kennedys, when the Europeans come to take land in America, they are take a lot of land and have big agriculture. So this is why they are rich and people want to take their land now and kill them.

Me: You know, I'm not sure the Kennedys are the farming type of people...