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06 Feb 2016

Local Women’s NGOs and the Reform of Islamic Law in Aceh: Case Study of MISPI

Dina Afrianty, May 2010
Asia Institute and Law School, The University of Melbourne

This thesis looks at the responses of local women’s NGOs to the implementation of Islamic law in Aceh from 2006 to June 2009. In it, I argue that although the implementation of Islamic law  in the province  has placed some restrictions on women’s freedom, it has not prevented women from engaging in public life. Acehnese women who have joined local women’s movements have challenged the legal system and have demanded the reform of Qanun, or Provincial Regulations, the chief mechanism by which Islamic law has been introduced in Aceh. The implementation of Islamic law in Aceh has thus, in fact, motivated, even enabled, women’s NGOs and other elements of civil society to become involved in wider discussion about the future faces of ‘sharia’ in Aceh.

The granting of Aceh of the right to apply precepts of ‘syariat’ in 1999 and the introduction of Qanun following  the passing of Law No 18/2001 on the Special Autonomy have been responded  to  differently by different groups of Acehnese. Most Acehnese see the implementation of Islamic law as a path to authenticity and the return to Acehnese indigenous values, in particular Islamic values.  Many hope it will be a path to regain Aceh’s glorious past and distance them from Jakarta. However, there are also many Acehnese who demand reform of the  Qanun, considering them to be biased and gender-insensitive.

Local women’s NGOs in Aceh have demanded reform of the Qanun and have promoted policy changes. Local women’s NGOs develop people’s awareness of their rights in Islam. They promote values and practices that do not discriminate against women. Local women’s NGOs are adamant that legal reform should be carried out by rereading, or at least reinterpreting, the sources of Islamic law. The arrival of international organisations and foreign NGOs following the devastating tsunami on December 26, 2004 have introduced local women’s NGOs to Western/international norms of Feminist discourse and human rights, in particular women’s rights, and to new discourses such as gender equality and justice. These have now become part of their own, Acehnese, conversations.

A case study of  MISPI, Mitra Sejati Perempuan Indonesia (True Partner of Indonesian Women), a local women’s NGO that responds to the implementation of Islamic law demonstrates local women’s NGO’s agency to enable Acehnese women to take active roles in Aceh’s democratisation. MISPI understands that when working in a society where Islam and tradition are strongly entrenched in people’s lives it needs to ensure that it works within that context. To do so it seeks to preserve its Islamic credentials while at the same time challenging conservative interpretation of Islam by pursuing a reinterpretation of the Islamic texts. It has developed networks with the male-dominated government and other authorities such as  Ulama and the  dayah community (traditional Islamic education) to introduce  what it sees as more  egalitarian interpretations of Islam.  MISPI’s activities thus mirror the  broader  agenda of Muslim women NGOs, which is framed under the rubric of ‘Islamic Feminism’ to challenge the resurgence of Islamic conservatism. Although MISPI and its activists are still in their initial stages of introducing their ideas about Islamic equality and justice, the presence of democratic mechanisms in Aceh will allow MISPI to advance its agenda, which it is hoped will ultimately result in legal and social reforms that will further the empowerment of  Acehnese women.

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