Dealing With Double Standards in Aceh
Surfers bobbed over the reef break a hundred metres from the shoreline and a bay-like lagoon shimmered in between. The ocean was a welcome respite from the fiery Sumatran sun. As I floated gently, the noises of the land subsided and I was lulled by the hum of the sea.
Leaving the water broke my enchantment, like a pin being lifted from a record. I made a mad dash to my clothes, dressed without drying and began to traipse the distance back toward the village, looking more like a roaming pile of laundry than a relaxed holiday-goer. Soggy and sand-caked, my cumbersome appearance contrasted with the paradisaical setting. Within moments, I had a perspiration moustache as big as Borat’s and salty beads were escaping from under my headscarf. The swim started to seem redundant.
Aceh has the highest proportion of Muslims in Indonesia and is the only province in the country to impose Sharia law. Street signs displaying acceptable dress for women are frequent around town, and disobedience can result in archaic punishments like public caning. Though, as a non-Muslim, Sharia law didn’t apply to me while I was there, I certainly didn’t want to offend anyone or draw unnecessary attention to myself, so clothed myself as the signs advised.
There were no equivalent signs for my boyfriend to abide by. While I’m aware that conservative Islam is most concerned with censoring women, I still thought general modest dress would be stipulated for both genders. Instead, it seemed the increasing presence of western surfers had relaxed the rules.
But it wasn’t just bule men (foreigners) who were allowed to wear minimal clothing. It soon became apparent that local men could to. The contrast was quite pronounced: at one beachside bungalow, a burqa-clad woman served coconuts to local surfers fresh out of the water, as she no doubt broiled under the heavy black material. Certainly not all women wore a burqa; most just donned a hijab. But they still wore long and covered clothing with only their faces exposed to fresh air.
Each morning, I shrouded myself while my boyfriend chucked on the same pair of shorts he’d wear in Australia. My walks along the beach began to feel humiliating as young men passed me in nothing but boardies, while I ambled awkwardly, fully clothed.
Experiencing this sexist custom did not, of course, take away from my interactions with the local people. I relished in their reactions (often bursts of giggles) when I would try my tongue at the local dialect or when I captained the scooter with my boyfriend on the back. My smile was always returned with a massive grin.
But on one particularly warm day we visited a local fruit shop, and I wore a dress that, while sleeved, only came to my knees. I didn’t think it to be breaching the code too radically, but I could feel the difference in how I was received by passers-by.
The fruit man had no grin for me; he eyed me up and down before looking away stony-faced. I noticed others, men and women, do the same. I immediately regretted my bare calves, but I also felt disappointed that acceptance was so conditional. No one batted an eyelid at my boyfriend, who was revealing far more skin than I was.
Later that week, we befriended another couple and visited a waterfall together. To our delight, we were the only people there besides one little old lady who was (wo)manning a mie-goreng cart. A rush of excitement enveloped me at the thought of diving into the icy water in nothing but my swimsuit.
My new friend Annie was one step ahead of me, already in her bathers bound for the waterhole. She was abruptly stopped, however, by an impassioned outburst from the noodle lady. Whilst we couldn’t understand her words, the message was clear. Enraged by the amount of female skin on display, she continued yelling until Annie covered her shoulders and legs.
My heart sank as the prospect of an unencumbered swim was swiftly lost. I put on a long-sleeved rashy and shorts, and followed my shirtless boyfriend toward the water. I turned to smile at the noodle lady, who smiled back at my appropriate clothing and me.
Coming from Australia, a place of relative sartorial freedom, this explicit monitoring of my clothing was confronting – but mostly because it was gendered. I’m not suggesting I come from an unrestricted utopia in which we have total freedom and can dress without consequence. Indeed, it would be ignorant to comment on how women in traditionalist Islamic societies are required to dress without recognising that secular societies also pressure women (albeit, not through legislature) to dress in a certain way. Ultimately, both societies exemplify the objectification of women, just on opposite ends of the spectrum.
In western countries like Australia, women are encouraged to adhere to a narrow ideal of beauty that appeals to what men have been socialised to find attractive.* Achieving this look is often uncomfortable and impractical, think the g-string, stilettos or sticky ‘chicken fillets’, not to mention appurtenances like waxing, tanning and dyeing.
But being required to censor my body in Aceh purely because of its femaleness felt like I was being told I had something to hide. I was surprised how quickly this internalised into a sense of shame. Drawing on my own emotional reaction in this short time, I wondered how experiences of systemic or prolonged censorship would affect a person’s individuality and sense of self.
I am not in a position to speak on behalf of women in Islamic culture; rather, I speak for myself as a visitor within it. Discussions surrounding the symbolism and purpose of the burqa can be found elsewhere, but this is not my objective here. Instead, I merely wish to comment on the contrast I observed between expectations held for female and male tourists. I knew coming in to Aceh that I would have to cover myself, yet experiencing it in reality sparked an emotive response that I didn’t expect.