Opinion

When women are banned
from wearing trousers

Starting from Jan. 1, 2010, there will be no more women wearing trousers in West Aceh.
West Aceh Regent Ramli MS has signed a bylaw which prohibits women in the regency from wear trousers.

To anticipate the huge number of slacks to be cut up by police during raids, the regental administration has prepared around 7,000 long skirts, which will be provided free to those caught wearing trousers.

The West Aceh regent was quoted by a newspaper last month as saying that “We have issued the regulation to further enforce Islamic sharia granted by the central government”.

The new bylaw on the banning of trousers adds to another controversial law in Aceh launched earlier in September under the Islamic bylaw system, which included articles on stoning adulterers to death and caning for premarital sex. Across the country, the new bylaw adds to many similar policies in other regions which rule on women’s dress code and behavior.

The report on the ban on women wearing trousers in West Aceh reminds me of Lubna Ahmed Al Hussein, a female Sudanese journalist who made headlines for her courage in challenging her government by refusing to admit that she had committed a crime by wearing trousers.

Lubna was caught wearing a blouse and trousers in a restaurant in Khartoum in July this year. Under the strict interpretation of sharia law adopted by the Sudanese regime, wearing trousers in public is considered indecent for a woman and causes “public uneasiness”. The penalty for those caught violating the law is paying a fine, imprisonment and a flogging.

While 10 of the other women who were arrested with Lubna immediately pleaded guilty, paid the fines and were flogged, Lubna and two others decided to go to trial to challenge the law. In the end, Lubna was still found guilty and was asked to pay a fine or to go to prison for a month, but there was no flogging.

She refused to pay the fine and chose to go to prison instead. It turned out that she stayed in prison for one night only. She was freed, against her wishes, after the Sudanese journalist union paid the fine for her.

When I read Lubna’s case, I did not think a policy banning women wearing trousers would exist in Indonesia until I read the report on such a policy in West Aceh.

Again and again women become the victims of gender-biased laws which treat women as no more than an object to be controlled at all times and in many aspects of their life.

The pretext to justify such laws is always the same: to protect women’s safety and dignity.

On the contrary, the laws deny women’s rights and have nothing to do with their safety and dignity.

Choosing what to wear, a basic right which, for many of us, is taken for granted, is no longer the case for women in West Aceh.

Today it is about trousers, tomorrow it could be about women’s shirts, the color of their clothes, their makeup, the way they walk, and the list may get longer.

I believe this is not about religion. This is about how a group of people in power interpret religion.

These people have their own “religious” interpretations on what is considered indecent and immoral, force others to follow their interpretations and close the door on different opinions.

Sadly, such interpretations are often gender-biased and discriminate against women. Women’s voices are rarely heard and their interests are poorly accommodated. Even worse, women are treated as if they are criminals who deserve to be punished, such as in the case of Lubna.

It is now time for the central government to act. Regional bylaws should not contravene national law. More importantly, gender mainstreaming has to be applied in public policies at all levels. We do not want what happens in Sudan, to occur in West Aceh and in other parts of Indonesia.


The writer is an Indonesian visiting senior lecturer for the gender studies program, School of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. The opinions expressed are her own.

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