Saturday, June 4, 2011

Selamat Datang Kembali

My Bahasa Indonesian is improving slowly but surely, and each time I mention to someone that I would like to learn more the response is "Oh you should! It's so easy!" Oh really? You think it's easy to speak your language, interesting. In fact Bahasa is relatively easy, there are no verb tenses, there is no masculine-feminine for adjectives, and to make something plural you simply say it twice, for example child = anak, children = anak-anak. So on that note, the title of this post means welcome back.

I'm back in Indonesia after a short two week trip back home. The occurrence of two back-to-back projects in the same country is partly coincidence, partly to do with partnerships involving the group I work for. Regardless, I am now somewhere entirely different from Jakarta; imagine conducting research in New York City, then conducting research along the gulf coast. I'm in Banda Aceh, again. Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will remember that I was here in the fall of 2009 as well. Banda Aceh was the inhabited location closest to the epicenter of the earthquake that caused the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. This time I'm here to do research rather than an evaluation and it has now been 6.5 years since the tsunami, so there are many less expatriates but many more trees.

If you were to google Banda Aceh you would probably come across articles about the tsunami first, but if you were to keep looking you would find information about the civil war that ended in 2005. You would read that Aceh is a semi-autonomous region, a concession of the national government in the peace treaty, and as part of that semi-autonomy Aceh is governed by Sharia law (Islamic religious law) rather than secular law used in the rest of Indonesia. We could talk for hours about whether the law in each region is really religious or secular, to whose benefit each type of law is, and who was really involved in the decision making to implement Sharia law here, but let's save that for another day. Right now let's talk about the practicalities of it.

Aceh recently made headlines for tightening the letter of the law and its enforcement relating to women's dress. Previously the law simply said that Muslim women had to be covered: ankles, wrists, head (hair, neck, ears, not face), and everything in between. However, some women, particularly younger women from my observation, were dressing in covering clothes, but they were very tight, imagine skinny jeans, a tight top and a headscarf tucked into your shirt so it isn't very noticeable. There are "Sharia police" who enforce religious elements of the law, ensuring that women's headscarves do not show any hair, making sure all Muslims are at the mosque on Fridays, and on and on. In response to women's reinterpretation of the dress code, the law was then changed to explicitly state that women must be covered and their clothes may not be tight or explicitly show the outline of her body. In addition, the enforcement of this and other religious laws was increased, with the punishment for the first one or two offenses being a warning, whereas the punishment for multiple offenses is public corporal punishment. You, a long stick, and a man in a hood in front of a crowd, and yes, women are included.

Last time I was here there were more expats. Last time I was here the law was less strict. Last time I was here it was my first time working in a predominantly Muslim place (I had visited the Middle East). And so this all begs the question: Should I wear a headscarf daily? Here are some things to consider: Sharia law technically does not apply to me because I am not Muslim. It is HIGHLY unlikely Sharia police would ever even speak to me about covering my head, otherwise I dress very conservatively. I have scarves with me that I have used in the past to cover head or shoulders when entering a mosque or a religious school. A researcher on our team who is Muslim and never covers her head in Jakarta, put on a headscarf before we got off the plane today. I have lots of complex and mixed feelings about forcing women to cover themselves. But my personal feelings aren't up for debate here. I'm on the job. So what should I do?

It's amazing how much time and thought I spend considering how I dress when I work. I walk into places expecting that people watch American movies and associate me with how women are portrayed in them. Usually people ask me questions that confirm this assumption to be true, so I'm already fighting back against people's assumptions in order to be taken seriously, and respected as a professional, despite the fact that I am female and young. And you thought you had trouble getting dressed for work in the morning.

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