Introducing… Miss Aceh

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Muslim extremists in Aceh were outraged when a young woman from the province, Qori Sandioriva, won the Miss Indonesia crown this month. The area has implemented sharia law and Teung-ku Faisal Ali, the secretary general of Aceh’s Ulama Association, told the BBC that Sandioriva, 18, must wear a veil to comply with local values. She has refused, expressing pride in her uncovered head. Sandioriva will be required to wear a swimsuit at the next, global level of the competition.

The Jakarta Post interviewed Banda Aceh housewife "Heny" who said that protests against the woman were inappropriate and "only diminish from the fighting spirit of Acehnese women to perform at the national as well as international level".

Aceh occupies a unique position in the Indonesian archipelago. Until the 2004 tsunami — which killed over 200,000 Indonesians, many of them in Aceh — the province endured an insurgency for independence against Indonesian occupation. The tsunami changed everything. A peace treaty was signed in 2005 between Jakarta and the rebel Free Aceh Movement. Integration was the new message and true independence almost disappeared as a dream.

Throughout my recent speaking tour of Aceh — as guest of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival — I encountered a range of views about its position within Indonesia. During a meeting with journalists and editors at leading newspaper Harian Aceh, I heard that nobody wanted to return to the bad old days of night-time disappearances, extra-judicial torture and random brutality under occupation.

Despite this, however, most backed the independence claims of West Papua and East Timor and longed for a time when they would also be free. Consider the current situation as a holding pattern, I was informed, until an unpredictable event occurs. (Nobody expected the 2004 tsunami; the consequent political earthquake was entirely unforeseen.)

Launched in 2006, Harian Aceh represents the post-2004 media environment in Aceh. As one journalist said to me, "democracy is not healthy with only one paper". "Alternative" news was sorely needed in the nascent democracy period. "We believe in balance, want to avoid racism and don’t want to inflame ethnic tensions in the archipelago," I was told. The newspaper’s offices were bare, with cracks near the ceiling, and only a clock set to the wrong time on the wall. The surroundings were simple but the editors eloquently articulated their vision for a better Aceh.

The province is poor — walking the main markets I saw fruit and fish sellers in almost torn clothing and the smell of decomposing rubbish was ubiquitous — but there are many visible signs of the massive development that has taken place over the last few years.

Every new object or building can be easily dated pre- or post-2004. The modern, sparse airport with the mosque-like dome in the middle, the flash hotels to house the international NGO set (who are, increasingly, departing), the German built hospital and the tsunami memorial museum are all striking for their cleanliness. Many Acehnese worry that as memories of the horrors of the tsunami and its effects begin to fade, aid dollars and workers will depart. Eighteen-year-old student Nindy Silvie said her brother will soon lose his job because the five-year international development program which employs him is about to cease.

The Harian Aceh journalists told me that the Israel/Palestine conflict was a central element of their global coverage. A small number of Acehnese men pledged to travel to Gaza in January to fight against Israel during its conflict with Hamas. I met one of them, a mild-mannered 20-year-old man, who showed no hatred towards Israel and accepted, with some prodding, the historical calamity of the Jewish Holocaust. He seemed genuinely intrigued that Jews existed who opposed Israel’s behaviour. "Are there many of you?", he asked. "We don’t hate Jews", another said, "but we oppose Israel’s occupation."

Muslim identity in Aceh is central to this ideology. Militant views exist and those who profess them also undoubtedly see themselves as leading the purity charge. The proposed upcoming visit of Japanese adult video star Maria "Miyabi" Ozawa to Indonesia to shoot a comedy caused some Muslim students in Java to protest and burn women’s underwear. Many women’s groups, on the other hand, backed the trip.

These tactics are loud and intimidating, but many in Aceh, the most devout Muslim province in the country, laughed at the Miyabi outrage. Writer and teacher Fozan Santa told me that it was absurd for a modern democracy to ban any person who hadn’t committed a crime. I was reminded of Gaza under Hamas and its growing Islamisation program, backed only by a minority and rejected by a tired majority.

The implementation of sharia law in Aceh was ad-hoc, at best. Fundamentalists have called for the toughest penalties for "deviants", homosexuals, adulterers and criminals but there is fierce resistance.

I spent considerable time with three girls in their final year of high school — Nindy Silvie, Raisa Kamila and Mifta Sugesty — who were the main translators during my public events and media engagements. Two wore headscarves and the other chose not to. Raisa and Mifta said their families were fairly conservative and didn’t oppose the fact that there were no cinemas in Aceh — or many other entertainment options, for that matter. With me, they spoke frankly about a range of issues, from female circumcision — they opposed it, understanding the deleterious sexual effects of the act — to boyfriends, American popular culture and Edward Said. Their openness and knowledge forced me to reassess my views of young Muslim girls in a devout society.

Unlike Gaza, which remains occupied by Israel, Aceh has slowly opened up to the world with all its vices and benefits. I wasn’t expecting backward and parochial people, but it’s often easy to forget the revolutionary effect of the internet and satellite television. The girls said they often watched BBC News and CNN and loved al-Jazeera English. They were far more knowledgeable about the world than most school leavers I’ve met, including myself at their age.

I was the key speaker at a cultural event in the centre of Banda Aceh and these kinds of issues were thrashed out in front of 60 men and women, who voluntarily separated themselves along gender lines. After a passionate performance piece by a violinist who explained why young people should write — "most just watch TV, use perfume and drive" — we heard from an Acehnese blogger. He encouraged the attendees to blog because "there is no intervention from anybody and you own the media". His main concerns were managing the copyright of his content and other bloggers stealing his work without attribution.

It was encouraging to hear that bloggers across Indonesia meet up regularly and conduct conversations the mainstream media will not touch. Aceh now has its own blogging service that assists people in launching their own websites. Nobody seemed to know the exact number of Acehnese bloggers but even conservative counts reach to the hundreds.

Aceh remains a traumatised society. Less than five years after the cataclysmic tsunami touched everybody in some profound way — I met countless people whose entire families were wiped out and others who told of running for their lives into the nearby mountains — the province remains unsure of its identity. Largely ignored by Indonesia’s burgeoning tourist industry and the world media, a sense of isolation envelops the mindset of many.

History is littered with examples of countries which experience the deepest periods of pain followed by an awakening. Aceh is both blessed and cursed — but most Acehnese I met seemed to believe that overall, the former is the more fitting description.

New Matilda

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