Legacy of Southeast Asia’s Muslim women rulers

THE Malay world, while united by a common language, a collective commitment to Islam and a shared history, also preserves a variously expressed but mutually-held set of customary traditions (adat).

Muslim scholars, both past and present, have long debated the Islamic legitimacy of adat. In reality, however, many adat practices complement the ideals of Islam — ideals often overlooked by more “orthodox” Muslim practitioners. This is particularly so regarding the treatment of women.

A perception exists that Islam encourages the seclusion of women. While modern feminist readings of the Quran are celebrated for challenging this, it is worth noting that Malay adat has permitted Muslim women to attain public positions of power and influence for centuries.

In wake of International Women’s Day 2019, this article celebrates five Southeast Asian “Queens of Islam”, beginning with two sisters from the region’s early Peranakan (Sino-Malay) community.

During the late 1300s, the once great city of Palembang, former capital of Srivijaya, became a Chinese-led pirate base. In that guise, it wrought chaos throughout the Straits, disrupting trade and threatening regional peace until Zheng He, exasperated by the threat it posed to his fleets, attacked and conquered the city in 1407. Expelling all the city’s pirates, Zheng He appointed Chinese Muslim Shi Jinqing as its new ruler.

Under Shi Jinqing, Palembang embraced Islam and re-engaged in international trade. After his death in c.1421, control of the city was divided between his two daughters, Shi Daniang and Shi Erjie. For more than 20 years, these two ruled the city justly, ensuring the maintenance of peace and the development of a flourishing economy.

Subsequently, Shi Daniang also travelled to Java, where she became shahbandar (harbour master) of Gresik.

With the title Niai Gedi Pinateh, she preached Islam throughout the island, becoming a pivotal figure in its Islamisation. She even adopted and educated Sunan Giri, the most prominent of the Wali Songo.

Elsewhere in the region, the early 16th century saw Perak fall under the control of tribal chieftain, Tun Saban, and his sister, Tok Temong.

In 1528, Tun Saban invited Muzaffar Shah, a descendant of Melaka’s final ruler, to become Perak’s first sultan. During Muzaffar Shah’s inauguration, Tok Temong presented him with Mestika Embun, a powerful talisman. She refused, however, to cede her territory; confident of her own authority, she reminded Muzaffar Shah that, while he may rule Tun Saban’s lands to the right of Sungai Perak, she ruled to the left.

Although Tok Temong’s territory would ultimately pass to Muzaffar Shah upon her death, the latter refrained from challenging her authority throughout her lifetime, demonstrating the respect she commanded. Even today, Mestika Embun remains a crucial part of Perak’s royal regalia, without which royal authority cannot pass from one generation to the next. Until the reign of Sultan Idris Murshidul Azzam Shah (1887-1916), Perak’s royal graves and settlements were also exclusively located on the right side of Sungai Perak, out of respect for Tok Temong.

Turning to 17th century Aceh, this staunchly Islamic and fabulously wealthy Southeast Asian kingdom was famously ruled by Sultan Iskandar Muda from 1607 to 1636. It is often forgotten, however, that Iskandar Muda was succeeded by his daughter, Sultanah Safiatuddin Syah (1641-75).

While some have suggested that Sultanah Safiatuddin’s appointment was a ruse by Aceh’s powerful nobility to weaken royal authority, her ascension actually reflected the power of local matrilineal adat and the support of Nuruddin al-Raniri, Aceh’s shaykh al-Islam.

In his Bustan al-Salatin, al-Raniri argued that Sultanah Safiatuddin possessed all the qualities necessary for leadership and should therefore be allowed to rule, just as local adat permitted. Even the Dutch supported this assessment, describing her as “good-natured but awe-inspiring”.

Today, however, Sultanah Safiatuddin is poorly received by historians, who blame her for Aceh’s mid-17th century decline.

But, while Aceh did lose most of its empire under Sultanah Safiatuddin, to attribute this to her leadership is unjust.

The 17th century witnessed intense European expansion in Southeast Asia. The Dutch, in particular, actively tried to smash all Malay involvement in regional trade, bringing many great Malay and Javanese commercial centres, including Johor, Banten and Mataram, under their control.

That Aceh maintained its independence in the face of such aggression, while continuing to constitute a major trade centre, is both impressive and a testament to the sultanah’s ability to govern effectively.

Moreover, under Sultanah Safiatuddin, Aceh produced a rich legacy of Malay Islamic scholarship that, arguably, has not been equalled since.

Far from a failure, therefore, she emerged as one of 17th century Southeast Asia’s most successful rulers.

Our final Muslim woman head of state of this region, Cik Siti Wan Kembang, governed Kelantan between 1610 and 1667.

A warrior princess who entered battle on horseback accompanied by an army of female horse riders, Cik Siti Wan Kembang ushered in a mini Golden Age during which Kelantan asserted itself internationally, attracting merchants from all over the world and generating a degree of prosperity not seen again for a century.

Today, the favourite pet of Cik Siti Wan Kembang, the muntjac (barking deer), appears on Kelantan’s state emblem as a reminder of this glorious past.

Although these five ‘Queens’ lived many centuries ago, the longevity of Malay adat has ensured that women continue to contribute to Malay society. While hurdles undoubtedly remain, adat has helped female empowerment progress further and deeper amongst Malays than among other sections of the Muslim ummah.

Alexander Wain, is Associate Fellow at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia



Indonesian province bans men and women from dining together

Islamic Aceh district rules only married or related couples can eat out at the same table

A district in Indonesia’s deeply Islamic Aceh province has banned men and women from dining together unless they are married or related, according to an official who said it would help women be “more well behaved”.

Aceh is the only region in the world’s most populous Muslim majority country that imposes Islamic law and has been criticised in the past for putting moral restrictions on women.

It also attracted global condemnation for publicly whipping people found guilty of a range of offences including homosexuality, gambling and drinking alcohol.

Under the latest regulation, women in Bireuën district on Sumatra island will not be able to share a table with men at restaurants and coffee shops unless they are accompanied by their husband or a close male relative.

Co-workers on their lunch break will also be forbidden from sharing a meal.

“The objective is to protect women’s dignity so they will feel more comfortable, more at ease, more well behaved and will not do anything that violates sharia (Islamic law),” the head of the local sharia office, Jufliwan – who like many Indonesians has only one name – told AFP on Wednesday.

Another part of the directive, signed by the district head on 5 August, said women who were alone or without a family member should not be served at restaurants and cafés after 9pm.

Authorities say it will be up to restaurateurs to enforce the regulation, although offenders will not be punished.

Three years ago the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, banned unaccompanied women from entertainment venues including cafes and sports halls after 11pm.

In 2013, Lhokseumawe city in Sumatra’s north ordered women to sit “side-saddle” on motorbikes. The mayor at the time said straddling male drivers on motorbikes was “improper”.


Q&A: What you need to know about sharia in Aceh

The latest news coming from Aceh is hardly comforting for foreign tourists and investors looking to spend their time and money in the province: A Christian couple were publicly flogged after being found guilty of using a children’s game for gambling, which is a crime under sharia.

Local officials claimed the Christians had the option of being prosecuted under the nation’s Criminal Code, but they willingly chose sharia. So they took eight and seven lashes in exchange for six and seven months’ imprisonment, respectively.

Human rights activists doubt such a claim, saying non-Muslim offenders are mostly deprived of legal assistance and thus pressured to be tried under sharia.

The news about the flogging of the couple, identified as David Silitonga, 61, and Tjia Nyu Hwa, 45, is by no means the first of its kind. At least five non-Muslims in Aceh have been caned for breaching Aceh’s jinayat (Islamic criminal law), which was fully implemented about three years ago.

Sharia in Aceh has been controversial ever since it was first introduced shortly after the downfall of Soeharto in 1998, when Jakarta was struggling to cope with an armed insurgency there. But what type of sharia is implemented in Aceh? And how does a sharia-based legal system work there?

Below are a few things you need to know about the legal system.

Terpidana pelanggar hukum Syariat Islam menjalani uqubat (hukuman) cambuk di Banda Aceh, Aceh, Senin (11/9). Mahkamah syariah Kota Banda Aceh menvonis 10 hingga 28 kali cambuk dengan menggunakan rotan setelah dipotong masa tahanan karena melanggar Qanun (peraturan daerah) Nomor 6/2014 tentang hukum jinayat. (Antara/Irwansyah Putra)

When did Aceh implement sharia, and why?

Aceh was once a major Islamic sultanate in Southeast Asia. Islamic values, therefore, are incorporated in Aceh’s hukum adat (customary law). The history of sharia in modern Aceh, however, goes back to the early days of the Reform Era, when Jakarta decided to grant the province a special status.

The conventional wisdom is that sharia in Aceh was a concession given by Jakarta under former president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid” to Acehnese leaders to weaken the armed insurgency led by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

It is no surprise that GAM leaders initially rejected the formalization of sharia on the grounds that Islam has long been an integral part of Aceh’s culture, and that their struggle was driven more by political grievances than religious zeal. Only after a peace agreement was signed by Jakarta and GAM leaders in Helsinki, Finland, in 2005 did GAM accept the implementation of sharia law.

For GAM, sharia in Aceh was a gift from Jakarta, served on a silver platter for the Acehnese people. “The gift [of sharia] was placed at our parliament’s door,” Malik Mahmud, a former GAM prime minister, told BBC Indonesia.

Under the 1999 law on Aceh’s status as a special region, coupled with the 2001 law on special autonomy for Aceh and Papua, Aceh was the only region in the country given the authority to formally implement sharia law.

However, only in 2003 did Aceh formally introduce sharia as the law of the land through the enactment of three bylaws banning the consumption of alcohol, gambling and khalwat (dating in secluded places).

A year earlier, Aceh established Dinas Syariat Islam (Sharia Agency). The agency is tasked with coordinating three core sharia institutions: Mahkamah Syariah (Sharia Courts), Majelis Permusyawaratan Ulama (Ulema Consultation Council) and the Wilayatul Hisba (Sharia Police).

In 2009, Aceh’s councillors enacted their first fully pledged qanun jinayat, which included new jarimah (crimes) such as adultery and homosexuality. The bylaw stipulated that adulterers could be sentenced to death by stoning. In 2014, the councillors revised the 2009 jinayat, scrapping the provision on stoning.

The 2014 jinayat took effect in October 2015.

Helsinki Cathedral, also known as the St. Nicholas Cathedral, is a distinctive landmark of the Finland’s capital. The historic Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was signed on Aug. 15, 2005 in Helsinki. (Shutterstock/File)

What is khalwat? And how harsh is Aceh’s sharia law? 

It is a crime for a man and a woman who are not married to be in a secluded place together in Aceh. This is called khalwat and it is punishable by up to nine lashes, a fine of 150 grams of gold or 15 months’ imprisonment.

Alongside khalwat, maysir (gambling) and khamar (consuming alcohol) are also illegal under sharia.

Under the 2014 jinayat, zina (adultery and pre-marital sex), liwath (gay sex), musahaqah (lesbianism) and qadzaf (falsely accusing other people of adultery) are also classified as crimes. Those found guilty of such crimes could face up to 100 lashes or 1,000 grams of gold or 100 months in prison.

In countries where sharia is the law of the land such as Saudi Arabia and Brunei Darussalam, adultery and homosexuality are punishable by death.

According to historian Michel Feener, who has conducted extensive research on Aceh, the implementation of sharia was never driven by a “nostalgic utopian yearning for a return to seventh-century Arabia”.

In his 2013 paper, “Social Engineering Through Sharia: Islamic Law and State-Directed Da’wa in Contemporary Aceh”, Feener argues that sharia in Aceh is more of a “social engineering” attempt to rebuild Aceh following the Indonesian Military-GAM conflict and the 2004 tsunami that hit the region.

To support his argument, he cited the fact that only a few jinayat cases were handled by sharia courts each year. The Sharia Agency, he said, dakwah (campaigned) more than it focused on law enforcement. His study, however, did not examine the implementation of sharia after the enactment of the 2014 jinayat.

Does Aceh’s sharia apply to non-Muslims?

It does, but only for crimes that are not regulated under the Criminal Code such as khalwat, premarital sex or homosexuality. Non-Muslim offenders, however, could be prosecuted under sharia if they are willing to do so (the legal term for this is menundukan diri, which loosely translates to “submitting”).

Female dancers – who perform the Bines dance, a traditional dance from Gayo, Aceh –take a selfie during the event. JP/Hotli Simanjuntak (JP/Hotli Simanjuntak)

Is Aceh’s sharia legal? And can it be repealed?

Aceh’s lawmakers believe it is legal, as the 2001 law on Aceh’s autonomy and the 2006 law on Aceh’s administration, they claim, clearly gives the province the authority to devise its own legislation.

But human rights activists disagree, saying the bylaws enacted by Aceh’s council should not contradict the 1945 Constitution and national laws. They argue that the caning punishment goes against the 1999 law on human rights and the UN convention on torture, which Indonesia has ratified.

The adultery provision in jinayat, they say, overlaps with the morality provisions in the Criminal Code, which are also considered discriminatory. In many cases, the morality articles in jinayat tend to victimize women.

Activists grouped under the Civil Society Network for the Advocacy of Qanun Jinayat called on the government to review the Islamic bylaw and repeal it for going against the higher laws. But the Home Ministry said in 2015 that under the 2006 law on Aceh’s administration, it did not have the authority to do so and asked the activists to bring their fight to the Supreme Court.

The Institute for Criminal Justice Reform and the Solidarity for Women activist group have taken up the challenge by filing a judicial review request against jinayat at the Surpreme Court. The court, however, has suspended its examination as the House of Representatives is still deliberating revisions of the Criminal Code.

The House has said that it will pass the Criminal Code bill into law soon. The bill reportedly includes provisions criminalizing pre-marital sex and homosexuality. It is unclear how the new Criminal Code, which has become more like jinayat, will affect the implementation of jinayat. (srs/ahw)


Kneeling woman is brutally caned for adultery by masked sharia law enforcer in Indonesia

  • Those who are sentenced to the brutal punishment are hit up to 29 times  
  • The sentence is carried out by a masked sharia enforcer in a specially built area
  • People are flogged for variety of crimes, including standing too close to partner
  • Aceh allowed to have Sharia as part of peace deal following 30 year insurgency 

Ten people have been caned for adultery in the Indonesian province of Aceh, where strict sharia law is in force.

The pictures show a man and a woman, who is in obvious distress, being led to a specially erected covered area where they are caned by a masked sharia enforcer, known as an ‘algojo’

The woman is forced to kneel before her punishment begins, which usually consists of the prisoner being hit up to 29 times for their so-called crime.

A woman is forced to kneel before being caned for adultery in the Indonesian province of Aceh

Earlier this year footage emerged of a woman collapsing in pain due to the severity of their injuries inflicted during the beatings.

The barbaric punishments, which occurred today in Banda Aceh, are the latest to emerge from the only province in the country to implement the Islamic punishment.

Despite than 90 per cent of the 255million people who live in Indonesia describing themselves as moderate Muslim, the region is allowed to retain brutal sharia punishments as part of a peace deal that ended a three decade insurgency.

A peace agreement signed in 2005 granted special autonomy to Aceh, at the northern tip of Sumatra, on condition that it remained part of the sprawling archipelago.

People are still flogged for a range of offences including gambling, drinking alcohol, gay sex or any sexual relationship outside marriage.

Back in September 2014, Aceh approved an anti-homosexuality law that can punish anyone caught having gay sex with 100 lashes.

Anybody caught engaging in consensual gay sex is punished with 100 lashes, 100 months in jail or a fine of 1,000 grams of gold.

The law also sets out punishment for sex crimes, unmarried people engaging in displays of affection, people caught found guilty of adultery.

People can be caned for something as innocent as standing too close to a partner in public or being seen alone with someone they are not married to.