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Book: “Women and Sharia Law in Northern Indonesia”

In the book “Women and sharia law in Northern Indonesia: local women’s NGOs and the reform of Islamic law in Aceh” the writer, Dina Afrianty, examines the life of women in the Indonesian province of Aceh, where Islamic law was introduced in 1999.

A Review of the book by Michael Buehler

Dina Afrianty’s book examines the lived experiences of women in Aceh, Indonesia’s only province where the legal code is based on Islamic law. She shows that the adoption and implementation of Islamic law has subjected women’s sexuality, bodies and religiosity to new norms and expectations. Against this backdrop, Afrianty’s main interest lies in examining how Acehnese women respond to these new circumstances. Concretely, the research questions animating the book are ‘… how Acehnese women respond to the implementation of Islamic law …’, ‘how women activists understand their status in Aceh’s culture and how they perceive gender relations in Aceh’s society’, and, finally, ‘how religious Acehnese women activists reconcile their understanding of gender equality and women’s rights with those of Western/international values’ (p. 3).

After an introduction to the literature on women’s movements in Muslim societies in Chapter 1, the subsequent chapter examines how the enforcement of Islamic law affects women in Aceh province. This is followed by two substantive chapters on gender relations in Aceh from past to present and how local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have begun to talk about equality and rights in the province after 1998. Chapter 5 provides an in-depth account of MISPI (Mitra Sejati Perempuan Indonesia – The True Partners of Indonesian Women), an NGO that responds to the enforcement of shari’a law by ‘introducing Acehnese women to the notion of equality, rights in Islam through a wide range of programmes and activities’ (p. 151). A conclusion summarizes the main findings of Afrianty’s study.

Of the many interesting findings presented in the book under review here, four are worth pointing out in particular: firstly, rather than depicting women as merely passive subjects that need to be ‘freed’ and ‘liberated’ from Islamic law as foreign media often do, Afrianty’s study shows that local women’s movements have not only pro-actively shaped the new legal framework adopted in Aceh after 1998, they have also done so in ways that are not necessarily in line with strategies employed by women’s movements in the West. For instance, local women’s movements vehemently reject labels such as ‘feminism’ or ‘gender’. This is not only to fend off criticism that local women’s movements are driven by a ‘Western agenda’ but also because Acehnese NGOs themselves think that local approaches will have most impact on the ground. For example, MISPI, one of the most visible and vocal women’s organizations, is deliberately collaborating with the local conservative establishment to slowly push for a re-interpretation of Islamic law and local shari’a regulations. Secondly, Afrianty’s study shows that most local women’s movements do not call for an outright abolishment of the local shari’a police (Wilayatul Hisbah) but rather fight for capacity building within the enforcement agency. Most of the negative headlines the shari’a police has created in local and global media are due to the fact that members of the Wilayatul Hisbah are poorly educated and receive a meagre salary, Afrianty argues. This leads to misunderstandings in the interpretation and application of local shari’a laws while making the force also susceptible to corruption. Thirdly, the resentment of some Acehnese towards the application of Islamic law is not automatically to be understood as an outright rejection of Islamic law. Rather, many Acehnese, men and women simply criticize the politicization of Islam in Aceh by politicians who adopt and enforce Islamic law out of expediency, not conviction. Finally, despite the fact that women’s movements are actively involved in shaping how Islamic law is adopted, enforced and interpreted in Aceh, women continue to be underrepresented in politics across the province. This, however, is common across Indonesia and around the world, and therefore not necessarily to be seen as a result of Aceh’s legal code being based on Islamic law.

 Overall, Afrianty’s book is an important contribution to the growing literature on the Islamization of political and public life in Indonesia after 1998. Not only is it carefully researched and well-written but it also manages to bridge existing literatures that see the adoption of shari’a law in Aceh either as a regressive foreign transplant indicative of ‘extremism’ (Onishi, 2009) or as a forward-looking project that aims at the social transformation of the province (see Buehler, 2014). In Aceh, women’s organizations may reject the narrow interpretation of Islamic law and its politicization. At the same time, however, they also defend their interpretation of Islamic law as an important part of local culture.


Table of Contents

A: Women’s movements in Muslim societies


Women in Muslim societies

Sharia and Islamic Law

Political struggles of women in Muslim societies

Women’s movements in Muslim societies

Muslum women’s movements and women’s NGOs in Indonesia

B: Women and the implementation of Islamic Law in Aceh

Politics and the formalization of Sharia

Institutionalization of Sharia Law

Discriminatory Qanun

Qanun or Fiqh of Aceh

C: Gender and women’s movements in Aceh

Women’s identity and gender relation in Aceh

Women’s movements and women’s NGOs Aceh

Women former combatants

D: Conversation on equality and rights

Women’s network for policy (JPUK)

Gender working group

Resistance and challenges


E: MISPI, agency, identity and the reform of Islamic Law in Aceh



MISPI and Islamic Law



F: Conclusion: Islamic feminism. Local women’s NGOs and women’s movements in Aceh

Bibliographic information

Title: Women and sharia law in Northern Indonesia: local women’s NGOs and the reform of Islamic law in Aceh

Author: Dina Afrianty

Publisher: Routledge

Language: English

Length: 194 pages

ISBN: 9781138819368

Pub. Date: 2015

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