2012 Student-Faculty Fellows Program Report: Warren Wilson College
Unveiling the Mysteries of Aceh:
Local and Global Intersections of Women’s Agency
Mentor: Professor Siti Kusujiarti
Students: Elizabeth Miano, Annie Pryor, Breanna Ryan
As a group, our research focuses upon how Acehnese local tradition, Islam and the implementation of Shari’ah Law, and globalization impact women’s identities in Aceh, Indonesia. To collect this information, we used participant observation and interviews, discovered through the snowball method of identifying participants. The interview participants include: academics, university faculty and students, cultural experts, NGO leaders, activists, the head of the Shari’ah police and court system, housewives, urban and rural women, political leaders, and religious scholars. The field research of the three student researchers was facilitated by three Acehnese students, and interactions between these two groups were enriching but complex. Our research in this most Muslim state in Indonesia was facilitated by our decision to wear jilbab (the Indonesian term referring to the version of head cover for women) to show our respect for their culture and to gain understanding through this experience. Acehnese highly appreciated this and, in turn, respected and facilitated our effort to better understand their culture, in short respect begets respect. It was also aided by a close friend and colleague of Professor Kusujiarti, Dr. Evi Lisna from Syiah Kuala University, Aceh and her associates.
My research specifically questions how Acehnese women’s multi-faceted identities (Muslim, woman, Indonesian) directly influence their activism and values. I found that women in Aceh do not feel suppressed by their religion, but in fact empowered by the strengths it gives to them. Wearing the jilbab makes many women proud and is a visible symbol of their identification with Islam – it is intimately related to their identity and therefore how they negotiate their social roles, activism, and lives. Women feel strongly about being part of a unique Acehnese culture, and often reject being associated with what they consider “Western” ideas, such as feminism. Nonetheless, some are unsettled by the forceful implementation of Shari’ah law and view this as having occurred more for political than religious reasons. They also question the timing of its implementation, coming at a time when residual conflict needed to be downplayed rather than possibly exacerbated.
My research focuses upon the extent of Islam’s influence on the development of Acehnese women’s identities, particularly within the context of the recent implementation of Shari’ah Law. It is clear that the implementation of Islamic Law has diverse and, at times, contradictory impacts on Acehnese women. On one hand, Islam plays an integral part in supporting and promoting women’s rights, particularly to education. At other times, Islam tends to limit women’s mobility. For example, jilbab is both a limiting and an empowering symbol: women who wear jilbab have the social approval to move outside the home (they are considered muslihat, “good women”), while women who do not veil are often targets of gossip (fitna) or, at times, the implementation of Shari’ah Law. We conducted interviews of over seventy people, and the interviews held with leaders of organizations like Aceh for Women’s Peace (AWPF), RPuk (Women Volunteers for Humanities), Violet Gray (Transgender Organization), and Planned Parenthood (PKBI) were extremely informative. They express concern about the limited access for women to high paying jobs and graduate school education; social pressures placed upon women to marry and bear children, and social stereotyping. As I work to complete my research, the key foci of my work will be upon the historical and contemporary significance of veiling (jilbab), the impact of gender norms on Acehnese women, perceived threats held by Acehnese towards Islam, and finally, manifestations of Shari’ah Law in Aceh.
My research focuses upon the often contradictory cultural roles of women in Aceh, Indonesia and how they are shaped by urban vs. rural traditions. Initially, I planned to focus my study primarily upon rural women and three traditions: matrifocality, particularly when examining marriage, property and inheritance practices; merantao, the practice of men to leave their villages for extended periods of time; and muslihat, the use of indirect means to attain a goal. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, my access to rural Aceh was somewhat limited. Nonetheless, my research shows that women in rural areas oftentimes have a stronger base of support from other women, but at the same time, the local enforcement of Shari’ah law can be more harsh and demanding upon a woman. Urban women also have greater opportunities to work in jobs that carry higher status and are more likely to secure higher education. Nonetheless, the voice of rural women should not be underestimated. Cultural traditions that allow for women to inherit the home and for newlywed couples to stay with the wife’s family for a period of time after marriage enhance the position of rural women.