Mon, 07 Mar 2005

From: AFP

Headscarf the latest tsunami casualty in Aceh

Sebastien Blanc, Agence France-Presse/Banda Aceh

Amid all the chaos in post-tsumani Aceh, the police that used to enforce the Indonesian province's version of Islamic law has for the time being fallen by the wayside.

As a result, some local women are taking advantage of the lack of supervision to quietly do away with the tradition of wearing the headscarf.

"It's much more free now. Before the tsunami, people used to tell us all the time to wear the headscarf," explains Yanti, a 20-year-old chemistry student wearing her thick hair tied back in a pony tail.

Under a special deal granting Aceh partial autonomy, the Muslim stronghold enforces a limited version of Sharia law enforced in all trials including criminal cases.

The dress code is strict, despite the tropical climate, with its hot temperatures and stifling humidity: women must wear a headscarf, without allowing any hair to be seen. The arms and legs must be covered. Figure-hugging trousers are, at least in theory, banned.

Such rules were rarely breached before the tsunami and this largely remains the case, with those casting aside the headscarf still very much in the minority, but people still say that something fundamental has changed.

"It's easier for women, there's no more pressure from the police. But the fact that more of them go out without the headscarf is not good. If they are Muslims, they ought to wear it," says Syamsul, a computer technician.

In the days immediately following the catastrophe, many people lost all their belongings -- headscarves included -- but Islamic organisations have been distributing scarves, and shops in the regional capital that were spared by the tsunami have once again opened their doors for business.

"I don't wear it because of the emergency," says 19-year-old student Santi, who walks around with her head uncovered, despite the emergency phase of operations being long-since over.

She says other women have become more religious in the wake of the tragedy and now wear their headscarf more often than they did before the tsunami.

But now Banda Aceh is seeing another sea change: dozens of international groups and humanitarian organisations are setting up shop in the centre of the town, which has never seen so many outsiders.

Sri Maryati Habibah, 23, now works for British aid group Oxfam. She works without her headscarf, but puts it on when she has to deal with Indonesian members of the public.

"Teenagers from 16 to 18 are at the moment influenced by all the foreigners that they see around without headscarves," she explains. The province, which has been torn apart by a nearly three-decade-long separatist conflict, has been off-limits to foreigners since the government launched a crackdown on the rebels in 2003.

Asked about the discretion given to the local police force charged with enforcing Sharia law, deputy commissioner Galih Sayudo says that while the law is in theory still applied, the force has other priorities.

"In parts of the province affected by the tsunami, the rules are still in force but the police concentrate on the security of the humanitarian operations."

He says he hasn't noticed a slide in moral standards, even if it is true that "before the tsunami the controls enforced by women officers were more strict".

"It'll take time before the Sharia police is once again operational," he adds, explaining that, like the rest of the population, the force suffered heavy losses in the tsunami.

GetAFP 2.10 -- MAR 1, 2005 10:38:03