BANDUNG (JP): A proposal to change a flesh market into a religious boarding school sounds absurd, but the local administration, withering in the heat of a morality crusade, has given it the green light.
""If I was allowed to propose a name, I would prefer Darul Inabah,"" wrote a Bandung resident in the letters section of the local Pikiran Rakyat dailyrecently.
Darul inabah, literally meaning a place to set out on the right path, could become the new name of Saritem, a popular prostitution complex in town.
The name is still under consideration by the Bandung Ulemas Council.
The call to overhaul the red-light district was first made by the BandungForum for Pesantren Communication, led by KH Imam Sonhaji. He came up with the idea to transform the 79.9-hectare area into a religious center, and the mayor gave a positive response.
Many believe the mayor gave his nod mainly because he is feeling the heatfrom the morality crusade.
Over the last five months, the West Java capital has been in an uproar caused by ""anti-immorality campaigns"" initiated by Muslim groups. They haveraided stores looking to seize alcoholic beverages and descended on nightspots in search of drugs.
The police have often been powerless to stop them.
As the movement gained steam, the local administration announced its own plan to combat immorality and depravity. It took aim at Saritem, the red-light district comparable to Dolly in Surabaya or Jakarta's Kramat Tunggak,which was closed last December.
But why a pesantren (boarding school) instead of, say, a mall or office complex?
""If we changed it into a business center, a supermarket, that would stillgive them (prostitutes) a chance to maintain their present jobs,"" said Bandung Mayor Aa Tarmana.
""If it is a pesantren, at least they would have opportunity to study the Koran.""
Saritem is now a battleground in the war for morals.
A huge banner adorning its gate reads: ""If sex workers come back, then Muslims will go into action. If pimps stay, Muslims will raid. Let's wage ajihad (holy war) until immorality disappears.""
The message comes from the Anti-Immorality Movement, which is a coalitionof a number of students of nearby Muslim boarding schools.
It is a pointed warning against the former denizens of Saritem, which wasofficially closed last Oct. 2.
Before the closure, Saritem had 430 sex workers working for 84 pimps. Today, 300 sex workers and 71 pimps remain and it is business as usual.
Prostitutes and pimps say they are not out to provoke discord, but merelywant to earn enough to make ends meet.
""Where do they want us to go? We would be delighted to leave if they could provide us with a better place and a better job,"" said a pimp in Saritem.
The city administration has allocated Rp 450 million (US$62,500) to acquire the area. On Jan. 9, 2000, a team was set up to begin the transformation of the area.
But those opposed to the plan are not taking the plan lying down. They have reportedly harassed residents, telling them not to sell their homes tothe government, and have persuaded the prostitutes to stay put.
Prostitutes finds themselves at the center of the tug-of-war of morals and money.
""It's really frustrating,"" said one of the women. ""The other day several men from the district administration came here and asked us to leave this place soon, or else we would be thrown in jail. The very next day, several thugs came and told us to stay. They said we would have problems if we left. We will not be safe anywhere.""
She sees the space narrowing in front of her. The morality drive is growing in intensity, with stoning of buildings and manhandling.
""I live in fear these days,"" she said.
She is only one of the sex workers who feel threatened and confused. Evenif they want to change their profession, it is unlikely they can easily find a job, lacking marketable skills and with companies still trapped in the economic crisis.
Critics blasted the mayor for not giving viable alternatives.
""There are mass layoffs at factories. Many companies have collapsed. Businesses are doomed to bankruptcy. What will he (the mayor) do about these unfortunates?"" said Prof. KH Atjep Jazuli, senior lecturer at the Bandung State Islamic Institute.
""Yes, Islam is against immorality. But it is against worse evils. Islam carries not only commands and prohibitions, but also solutions.""
He criticized the public's tendency to take the law into their own hands and the authorities' turning a blind eye to vigilantism. ""If we act like this in dealing with our problems, what makes us any different from the past rulers?""
He scoffed at the mayor's assertion that the prostitutes would study the Koran at the boarding school. Other students would pass judgment on the women, he added.
""They will be rejected if they register to join the pesantren. Even if they were accepted, they would be looked down on in class.