Sun, 27 Feb 2000

Men, students in quandary, Acehnese women map future

By Debra Yatim

BANDA ACEH, Aceh (JP): While students and a largely-male delegation are still in a quandary on how to map out a future for troubled Aceh, the women have already created a blueprint outline.

After more than four days of formal and informal discussion, almost 400 women from the 12 regencies of Aceh, participants of the Aceh Women's Congress Duek Pakat Inong Aceh in Banda Aceh, decided at 2 a.m. early Wednesday that women wanted a bigger voice in political decision-making.

"We the women of Aceh demand at least a 30 percent voice in the decision-making process for the future of our land," they said.

This demand was made alongside 19 other motions that ranged from a demand for equal recognition with men under Islamic law, to a ban on economic growth based on foreign debt, to the rehabilitation of female sex workers and to the right to act as mediators seeking a peaceful solution to the long-standing conflict that is ripping the province apart.

While these recommendations were surprising to at least two political observers from Jakarta, Andi Mallarangeng and Chusnul Mar'iyah, other observers found more surprising the fact that the all-Acehnese women's congress met with so much resistance from many sides.

"We had received hate mail and threatening phone calls from the very start," said Naimah Hasan, chair of the organizing committee, whose brainchild the congress was. "Many parties told me to my face not to go on with our plans."

A young woman in charge of press relations received daily crank calls threatening her very life if "the congress came up with a recommendation against a referendum for Aceh", said Naimah.

Meanwhile, a young student, Santi, told The Jakarta Post that she had been followed for a whole week by a strange man, who finally told her, "you're dead if the congress recommends a referendum".

The whole matter of referendum -- which to many parties means another word for secession -- did raise its head during the last day of discussions, when the delegates were divided in two on whether to state support for the idea, or to motion against it.

After more than seven hours of pro and contra arguments, nine women for the idea of referendum walked out, followed by another 19 ("though most of them were the catering staff," said a male security guard). The remaining 330 or so participants decided to drop the issue altogether.

The local press had a heyday in the days immediately following, making it out as if women do not have the capacity to discuss things civilly without resorting to catfights.

"The most valuable thing to come out of the Duek Pakat Inong," said Acehnese historian Dr. M. Gade Ismail of the Syiah Kuala University to the local TVRI station, "is that women are showing us men and the students on how to solve differing points of view in a democratic manner".

Acehnese students held a convention on the same dates as the women to discuss the idea of a referendum for Aceh or autonomy as proposed by the central government. Meanwhile, a delegation of mostly men are currently holding a series of meetings to decide on how to create an Acehnese Council of Representatives to make decisions for the province's future.

While the men and students up to Saturday had not decided on a date to convene to discuss details, the women have already decided to create a Peace Forum in which mediation and reconciliation can be discussed as part of a concrete blueprint towards a peaceful solution in Aceh.

This is the first time in 400 years that women have demanded a voice in public life, stated the official congress press release, referring to the golden age of Aceh under the rule of four queens, beginning with Queen Safiatuddin. Meanwhile, Islamic scholar Umaimah Wahid pointed out that Acehnese women did have a public voice until up to as late as 1912, when the Dutch finally took their right away with the banning of Tengku Fakinah, a vocal religious lecturer.

Whatever happens in the near future, the women of Aceh have finally regained their voice. It will take much more than enforced veiling of their heads to make them keep quiet now. Since Nov. 8, 1999, enthusiastic groups of young men began making sure that no woman on the streets could walk with her head uncovered. Banners have been posted all over Banda Aceh reminding women to keep themselves covered with the jilbab (Muslim headdress).

-- The writer was a speaker in the congress.