CAIRO – A new bylaw ordering female passengers not to straddle motorbikes behind male drivers is inviting a fierce debate in Indonesia’s Aceh province, with the central government promising to nix the law if it was found discriminatory against women.
“We will get clarification from the local government in Lhokseumawe about its intention to issue such a regulation,” Home Ministry legal chief Zudan Arif Fakrulloh told The Jakarta Post on Friday, January 4.
“I personally think that it will be discrimination against women. This planned bylaw will only treat women as the source of evil.”
Controversy erupted when Lhokseumawe Mayor Suaidi Yahya announced that he wanted to enact a bylaw that would require women to sit sideways on motorcycles instead of straddling behind men.
Under the new regulation, the mayor says that women passengers are only allowed to sit "side-saddle" because straddling the bike seat violates Islamic values.
"When you see a woman straddle, she looks like a man. But if she sits side-saddle, she looks like a woman," Suaidi said.
The new bylaw also aims to save people's "morals and behaviors", the mayor added.
He noted that passengers who sat side-saddle rarely fell off.
The local government will be evaluating the regulation in a month, after which it could turn into a by-law.
"Once it has become a by-law, automatically there will be sanctions," he added.
Zudan noted that the Home Ministry could reject locally passed bylaws, even in Aceh, which is the only provincial-level area in Indonesia authorized to pass shari`ah-inspired regulations.
“We have the authority to declare that a bylaw is problematic and we can ask the local administration to amend it,” he added.
“If the local administration presses ahead with its move, we will file a report to the President so that he can issue an order for an amendment or revocation of the ordinance.”
Aceh, located on the northern tip of Sumatra Island, is gradually implementing Shari`ah under a broad autonomy package granted by the central government in 2001 to pacify demands for independence.
It also has a religious police force whose task is overseeing Islamic regulations on dress, alcohol, gambling and immoral acts.
The new bylaw faced a widespread backlash from female and human rights activists.
“We, the women of Lhokseumawe, strongly oppose this very discriminative regulation because it ignores the rights of women in conducting their daily activities,” Safwani, the executive director of Ranup Women Institute, told the Jakarta Globe.
She added that there were much more urgent matters demanding the mayor’s attention rather than how women ride a motorcycle, including garbage in the streets.
“When you think of it, the cleanliness of the city is also in line with Islamic Shari`ah,” she added.
The regulation has been met with criticism from well-known Muslim activists like Ulil Abshar Abdalla, who is based in the capital, Jakarta.
"How to ride a motorbike is not regulated in Shari`ah. There is no mention of it in the Koran or Hadiths," he said on his Twitter account, referring to the second most sacred text in Islam after the Koran.
"In a democratic country, what is claimed to be Sharia must be assessed by the public's common sense if the government aims to turn the regulation into law."
Meanwhile, chairman of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), Otto Nur Abdullah, an Acehnese, called on the Lhokseumawe administration to reconsider its plan as it might promote more violence in the community.
“Most of the bylaws in Aceh govern the lives of women. However, women are always excluded from the process of making legislation. This is authoritarian leadership that sponsors the punishment of the people without trial,” Otto said.
Otto encouraged religious leaders and local traditional leaders to tell the public about their motivations in supporting the bylaw.
“The local administration is heavily patriarchal. It has failed to account for its main responsibility to bring prosperity to the people, when in fact sharia’s objective is about bringing prosperity,” he emphasized.
“The ulema and community leaders should speak to the people and say that the bylaw is not part of shari`ah.”
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