Current Project / Women & Politics / Women's Participation

Published: 06/12/2005

Indonesia is a country where more than 88% of its 260 million citizens identify themselves as Muslims (International IDEA, 2000, page 241) which makes it the country with the largest population of Muslims in the world. However, since its independence in 1945, Indonesia has been ruled by secularized government. In the era of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, Indonesia was led by left-leaning government until 1967. After that, Suharto created and ran a right-wing authoritarian government until he was forced to resign from his position in May 1998. Even though this country was once ruled by a cleric, his government did not implement Islamic Sharia as a legal and ideological basis.


In 2000, the government of Indonesia advised Aceh to draft and issue a regulation on custom, education, and implementation of Sharia Law. The government took this step to reduce the pressure from the people of Aceh who demanded independence which was connected to the demand to implement Islamic Sharia Law in Aceh. This demand to implement Islamic Sharia Law had been initiated even before Indonesia gained its independence in 1945. The rise of the Aceh clerics in leadership position after the fall of the Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam in 1873 was started by the establishment of Aceh Cleric Association (PUSA) on 5 May 1939. Under the leadership of Teungku Muhammad Daud Beureueh, PUSA set the goal of implementing Islamic Law in this region through:

  1. Spreading, developing, and protecting the greatness of Islam.
  2. Unifying the interpretation of Sharia.
  3. Improving and directing the understanding of Islam through religious outreach (dakwah).
  4. Establishing learning center for youngsters in Aceh (Ali, 1998, page 134).


In the early fifties, PUSA started to express their discontent toward the Indonesian government which, in their opinion, prevented the implementation of Sharia Law in Aceh. In 1953, Daud Bereuh declared Aceh as a part of the Islamic State of Indonesia (NII), a military movement under Kartosuwiryo in West Java. This movement was responded with gory military response ended with the declaration of Aceh as a Special Region (Hardi, 1993, page 112).


The political tension with the central government smoldered again in 1966 with the establishment of Indonesian Cleric Council in Aceh with an organizational hierarchical structure that operated even in sub district level. In 1968, the Cleric Council succeeded in convincing the governor of Aceh and the local parliament (DPRD) to issue Local Regulation No.6/1968 on The Implementation of Islamic Sharia Law in Aceh. The central government refused to support this regulation as it was considered contradictory with the ideology of Pancasila. As a consequence, the Islamic Sharia Law was not implemented and this caused dissatisfaction among its supporters (Isa, 2000, page 9-10). The tension escalated when, after ten years and right before the general election in 1977, Dr. Muhammad Hasan Tiro returned from the U.S. and declared the establishment of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Since this movement was relatively weak, the Indonesian Army found no difficulty in overcoming this movement. (Syah and Hakiem, 2000, page 40-41).

By the end of the 80’s, GAM rebuilt its power because of three reasons. First, there was an economic gap in Aceh. Second, the government was using pressure and political influence to help Golkar, a party associated with the government, winning in Aceh. Third, the sharing of profit between the central government and local government from the exploitation of natural oil and gas was considered unequal. To combat the resurrection of GAM, the Indonesian government announced and treated Aceh as a military operations area (DOM) whose status was only annulled in 1998 after the fall of Suharto (Syah and Hakiem, 2000, page 47). During the DOM period, the government of Indonesia implemented the most repressing military operations which victimized a lot of people in Aceh. Many Aceh women became the victims of war directly or indirectly.


Currently, the clerics in Aceh are reconstructing Aceh nationalism which is based on Islamic Sharia. Just like our past political leaders, the clerics considers Islam as the most effective tool to unify the people of Aceh in demanding independence from the central government of Indonesia. GAM also took this stand in viewing the central role of Islam in mobilizing support from the people of Aceh. As stated by Norbu (1992, page 65), religion is a strong unifying power since it forms strong cultural identity in a society with no regard of social differences. The only main difference between the clerics and GAM is that the clerics’ power lies in the interpretation of Islamic teaching while GAM’s power is mostly originated from its power structure to implement regulation through violence.

The Indonesian government refused the independence of Aceh because of two reasons. First, the independence of Aceh would result in domino effect, encouraging the other conflict areas to also demand for independence. Second, the independence of Aceh would take the economic surplus from natural resources exploitation in Aceh (oil and gas) away.


In this political context, Aceh women faced three oppressing power: the Indonesian army, GAM, and the patriarchal clerics. The clerics and GAM in Aceh viewed women, as Yuval-Davis puts it, as “the symbolic bearers of the collectivity’s identity and honor” which refers to the collective identity of Muslim community in Aceh. The Indonesian army also viewed Aceh women as a symbol of honor. With this view, the Indonesian army considered using violence against Aceh women as a way to terror and harass the people of Aceh so that their struggle to fight for independence could be ended. The number of Aceh women who were raped by the military personnel during the DOM operation from 1989 to 1998 was estimated to be around 40 women (Presidential Advisory Team) to 625 (Save Aceh Foundation). The experience of the Aceh women who experienced violence (sexual violence) during the period of DOM has also been documented and published (Sukanta, 1999).

Both the clerics and GAM were trying to create nationalism on the basis Islam to gain the support of the people of Aceh and using Aceh women as a symbol of Islamic power in Aceh. This symbol is needed to support a stronger unity among the fellow Muslims to fight against the central government and the Indonesian Army. McClintock (1993, page 62) states that women are often constructed as the symbol of the nation, yet their rights to participate in decision-making are often neglected. The Islamic Sharia is often used to dictate women how to dress and behave in a certain way. Aceh women were asked to wear long-sleeve clothes that cover their feet and arms, don hijab to cover their heads, and not to wear trousers that resemble those of men’s. Those who disobeyed would be disciplined by using violence when needed.

“In Langsa, Aceh Timur, on 2 October 1999, an unidentified masked group stopped a bus which carried female employees of PT. Wira Lanao. All the female passengers were forced to get off of the bus, and the unidentified people cut their hair. The female passengers were Rungun Silitonga Sri (27), Herawati (29), Nova (25), Ida (24), Afnidar (26), Ita Simanjuntak (27), and Ida (26). (Serambi Indonesia, 5 Oktober 1999).


According to the attackers, these female employees were guilty because they went out without having their heads covered. This kind of accusation was actually a new phenomenon in Aceh that was started not long after 1999. The interest of the Aceh clerics to change Aceh women to become the symbol of Islam ignored the female subjectivity by thinking that Aceh women did not know what is best for them. They assumed that women need to be forced. Even a famous cleric and columnist, Ameer Hamzah, publicly supported the use of violence against Aceh women.

“It is important for us to support the attempt to encourage women to have their hair covered. Even though it will be hard for them to do it the first time, but as soon as they realize its positive side, they will happily get used to it. The hair that is cut will grow again. It does not matter that much to cut a mini skirt, right? The important thing for now is for women to wear Islamic clothes and practice Islamic Sharia. Leave the decadent way of dressing.” (Serambi Indonesia, 3 November 1999).


In an interview, Rina, a woman activist, revealed that in Banda Aceh, the campaign that ended up harassing women who did not wear hijab was started by Sentral Informasi Referendum Aceh/ SIRA (Central Information for Aceh’s Referendum), an organization that was affiliated with pro-referendum movement. According to her, in rural area, it was GAM who intimidated women and forced them to wear hijab. This campaign was not only carried out in Aceh by Aceh male leaders and activists, but also in areas outside Aceh during the discussions and forums held by the government or civil society organizations.

The oppression that was done by the central government, GAM, and the clerics has placed Aceh women in a dilemmatic position. A research with 909 respondents showed that more women demanded independence from Indonesia than men (Akatiga et al, 2000, pg.18-19). They wanted to end the cruelty committed by the central government and the Indonesian army. The Indonesian government also practiced ethnocentric treatment toward Aceh women in the field of education. Female Aceh heroes were removed from history schoolbooks and they were not in the educational posters that displayed Indonesian heroes. The history schoolbooks were Java-centric. In explaining the struggle against the Dutch, the books were started with the fight against the Dutch in Java done by Javanese fighters. Moreover, there were only two female heroes namely Kartini from Central Java and Dewi Sartika from West Java. By gaining independence from Indonesia, the ethnocentric male discourse practiced by the Indonesian government was expected to be deconstructed.

However, the violence committed by the central government and the Indonesian army was only one of the many sources of violence. By fighting the central government, Aceh women were actually giving more power to Aceh clerics and GAM who had been practicing another form of violence toward them by turning Aceh women into Islamic nationalism symbol. There are several examples of severe discrimination against women in Muslim countries in the attempt to implement Islamic Sharia. In Aceh, according to Wati, a coordinator of a women organization, many GAM leaders practiced masculine sexual politic in leadership by having more than one wife and treating them badly. This showed that they did not have the leadership quality to protect women from discrimination. At the same time, the governor of Aceh established a group of six men to draft the Local Regulation on the Implementation of Islamic Sharia in Aceh. The full draft of this regulation received full support of the local parliament (DPRD).


The dilemma faced by Aceh women is related to the fact that their struggle against the Indonesian army increased the power of the clerics in oppressing women instead. As a feminist, I am deeply concerned about the dilemma faced by Aceh women in their struggle to realize gender equality. We learned form this dilemma that Aceh women have to be more critical toward the central government, clerics, and GAM. Aceh women have to be able to fight against the attempt to treat them as power relation symbols while at the same time discriminate and marginalize them from decision-making process. The struggle for meaning in the interpretation and reinterpretation of Al Qur’an and other Islamic teachings is the main element of this alternative discourse. This also applies to their struggle which is about changing the policy that discriminate women and taking over political, social, and cultural symbols which are previously dominated by men.

Chapter 1 of this paper talks about the concept of discourse, nationalism, gender, inclusion, exclusion, Islam and gender relation, and women rights as human rights. Following Weedon (see the discussion about discourse in Chapter 1), this paper looks at how discourse works at the level of language, institution, social process, and subjectivity. By looking at the many versions of the Holy War stories, which were written in the 17th Century and in the end of the 19th Century, the second chapter of this paper will examine how the discourse of nationalism, religion, and gender works at the level of language. The third chapter examines how oral tradition becomes an area of struggle for Aceh women in realizing gender equality. The findings from the field are centered on the analysis of literature on oral tradition and interview with Aceh women activists to show how meanings are contested in gender relation, nationalism, and Islam in the construction and deconstruction of Aceh nationalism and how the contested meanings are reflected in Aceh female activists’ subjective position. In elaborating the historical perspective of Aceh women’s political struggle, this paper will only look at the discursive aspect of the construction and deconstruction of Aceh nationalism. Chapter IV will analyze how a discourse works at the level of institution and social process by looking at how the Indonesian government has been domesticating women by introducing discriminative policy since 1945. The conclusion part of this paper will explore the possibility for Aceh women to develop their own discourses by advocating the recognition of women’s rights as human rights.


This paper will answer these following questions:

  1. How Aceh nationalism is constructed and deconstructed historically?
  2. How Aceh women are engaged in or excluded from the construction of Aceh nationalism?
  3. What kind of resistance committed by Aceh women to the dominating practice of the clerics, GAM, and the Indonesian government?
  4. What kind of discourse that will help Aceh women to realize gender equality?



Book Review:


Politik Identitas Perempuan Aceh




Politik Identitas Perempuan Aceh