Mon, 13 Mar 2000

Women, the other voice of troubled Aceh, speak up

More than a year after the formal end of the military operation in Aceh, an average of about five people were killed daily in the province. The following is an excerpt of an interview with Naimah Hasan, chief organizer of the February Acehnese women's congress in Banda Aceh, held from Feb. 20 to Feb. 22.

Question: State Minister of Human Rights Hasballah M. Saad has said there are not enough funds for trials of rights abuses. How do you view this further delay?

Answer: Rights abusers must be brought to trial. How come there is no money for that? It's no exaggeration for us to say that Aceh is a stepchild (to the republic); funds must be raised if the republic really wants Aceh to be part of it.

The Acehnese have been left aggrieved by the central government. We should acknowledge that Aceh was virtually the initial capital of the republic, as the Acehnese have contributed their wealth since the independence struggle, and (the province) was still the largest contributor when the crisis hit. However, we have been drained of our resources yet we even received less funds than East Timor.

Then soldiers were sent to face the independence movement (GAM) here but their numbers must far outnumber GAM. This has led soldiers to commit all sorts of actions -- we have much evidence -- and things have even worsened compared to the military operation period (1989-1998).

The government must make up for the past wrongs.

Q: What do you do and how did the congress come about?

A: I teach secretarial studies and public relations at (state) Syiah Kuala University. I have been active for years in the Women's Coordination Body. I wanted to do something for women in Aceh, who are very marginalized.

Aceh's history is indeed marked by achievements of women rulers and heroes, but that was some 400 years ago. I've always been baffled at the fact that men have a phobia toward women in Aceh, who find it difficult to get a chance for themselves.

Sadder still, the women also believe they do not have a chance. Student activists immediately disappear once they are married. The attitude is that they do not need to think for the public, they are easily contented once they have families. It's such a pity given the many university graduates among women, who make up 52 percent of some 4.2 million people in Aceh.

The family planning program has been quite a success in Aceh, and women in the cities only have an average of two children.

Ironically, Aceh is supposed to be a religious, Islamic society -- so we need a breakthrough.

Q: What does that mean for the condition in Aceh?

A: In this situation of conflicts, in many of the talks held about it, I have hardly ever seen women. I am quite worried when people make statements on behalf of the Acehnese while the largest number of victims has been women. They need to be involved, and that is why I am taking the congress results to President Abdurrahman Wahid.

Many issues have not significantly been raised and acted on, and there is no sign of an immediate solution to Aceh's problems. Women have suffered greatly -- look at all those women having to give birth and raise children in shelters with no clean water.

Women whose husbands have been killed face a new burden. Many of those in the villages with five or seven children were highly dependent on their men. They told me they can only seek jobs on people's land for a daily wage of Rp 5,000, and even such jobs are not found each day.

Men have not been focusing to that extent while this situation is worsening with five or six killed daily. In February alone 145 were killed.

Q: What have the men been talking about? A referendum?

A: A referendum is still something up in the air, when will it happen? Meanwhile, people are killed every day, children are dropping out of school. The theme of the congress, called the Duek Pakat Inong Aceh, was therefore peace and justice (several participants walked out, demanding that a referendum become one recommendation -- Ed.).

Participants also pointed out that no one feels safe enough to go about earning a decent living; even going to the mosque is not safe. Banda Aceh mosques were comparatively quiet on Idul Fitri (Jan. 8).

If this continues, in six months the Acehnese could be wiped out. So we tried to gather women to hear their aspirations.

Q: What was your main impression of the congress?

A: It was extraordinary, to have such enthusiasm at a time like this. Women from Singkil district could not come because of threats to their lives. (Some participants were threatened that they would be killed if the congress ruled against a referendum -- Ed.). We don't know the people who made the threats.

The congress was also very legitimate in representing women; we had drawn up a criteria that every 5,000 women would be represented by one woman. It was impressive to see how women (437 from 12 Aceh regencies and townships, and from outside Aceh) from remote villages and from refugee shelters, including widows, sat side by side and really talked, with no barriers, with the city women.

The process was quite democratic, and no forum in Aceh so far has been on a par in that aspect. The congress, which followed up on an earlier precongress event, was also very consistent in the focus on peace.

The women came up with forward-looking recommendations for Aceh's welfare, such as the proposal against relying on foreign debt, and a deadline of April 2000 for achieving fiscal balance.

Q: Is that realistic?

A: Aceh must be treated as an emergency case. Our infrastructure, including thousands of schools and shops, has been burned down. District chiefs no longer come to their offices. The provincial administration is no longer effective.

There has been little compensation for thousands of refugees who have returned to their homes only to find that they have been robbed of everything; even little, worthless things to robbers were destroyed. What is this, what is happening?

Q: Islam recognizes equality between men and women. It seems the congress signaled fear of a setback if Aceh applies the Islamic Syariah law. Why?

A: The applying of Syariah is indeed a common aspiration. Special autonomy was promised to in the never-realized law of 1956. However, many are ignorant about the true teachings of Islam; many believe that in line with Islam, the woman's place is in the kitchen.

Q: How are Acehnese women reacting to the compulsory wearing of the jilbab (headscarves)?

A: I am among those most opposed to people taking the law into their own hands, as evident in the cutting of women's uncovered hair, and (public humiliation) of (women wearing short) skirts in public. Those involved are hoodlums, maybe trying to be heroes.

An understanding of Islam cannot start from clothing. People must be given a chance to intensively study Islam (before deciding to apply the Syariah), and in the meantime everyone should restrain themselves. We could do that in a month.

Some believe the chador is compulsory. But that is a Middle Eastern custom, it is not Islam.

Q: You met with First Lady Sinta Nuriyah recently, and she questioned the security of women if they were expected to be involved as negotiators. What did you tell her?

A: The threat is there but need one stop? It is indeed burdensome for families. How would children feel if told they would be killed on account of their parents' actions? I go out with a companion to ease my family's anxiety.

Q: Are you worried that applying the Syariah might lead to women, for instance, being banned from working outside the home?

A: Not at all, we have several objective ulema. Much work needs to be done with such ulema and other experts (on reinterpretation of Islam regarding women). We stated in the congress that Acehnese women's future lies in the proper application of the Syariah.

We recommended a provincial rule on the application of Syariah. It will be up to the local legislative bodies to ensure a women's perspective in its implementation. (anr)