A year ago, the Walikota [mayor] of Banda Aceh made headlines by declaring Valentine’s Day haram [forbidden]. “Many Muslim youth in Banda Aceh are sending Valentine’s day greetings via social media. And it is the responsibility of the city government to ensure this does not happen again…Muslim youth should certainly not be celebrating non-Islamic culture,” said Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal.[1]

You might recognize that name from a footnote in my last Newsletter. Illiza is the exception to male dominance in the political class of syariah law-observant Banda Aceh. After serving for seven years as vice mayor under Mawardy Nurdin, who died of kidney failure, Illiza was appointed mayor in 2014. She and Jakarta governor Ahok thus share two commonalities: neither fit the Muslim male mold that typifies Indonesian leadership, and neither was democratically elected. This could all change when residents in their respective cities go to the polls this Wednesday – the day after Valentine’s Day.

In the run-up to Democratic elections, it is not uncommon for politicians to deliberately create media events in an attempt to shape public impressions. Indonesians call this “pencitraan” – though I’ve always liked the slightly less politically charged phrase “cari muka” [looking for face], which describes going to seemingly absurd lengths to draw attention to oneself.

For the past three years, Mayor Illiza has been quite active in shaping her public image, most notably by enforcing Aceh’s syariah law in highly visible – and often somewhat questionable – contexts. Given the overtly religious overtone of many of her political acts, it is perhaps most appropriate to describe them with the Arabic term “riyaa”[2] [doing things that please Allah with the intention of seeking attention from others]. In Islam, riyaa is a sin, so Muslim politicians who promote Islamic laws and lifestyles must take care to do so without “looking for face.”


If she truly intended to end the celebration of non-Islamic culture, Illiza (third from left) probably wouldn’t pose for pictures with schoolgirls holding (anti-)Valentine’s Day cards with hand-drawn hearts on them.

The above picture is included in an article, published anonymously, that asked why Illiza felt the need to ban something no one celebrated anyway.[3] It is not as if Aceh’s youth have been handing each other heart-shaped cards during third period, or ordering candygrams for their crushes. Friends told me that by forcing this public conversation, Illiza had probably introduced many schoolchildren to a holiday they hadn’t heard of previously.[4]

The issues “Bunda [Mother] Aceh” has pushed publicly offer insight into how she has negotiated her identity as a woman, a Muslim, and a leader. In her endeavor to maintain power in a male-privileging political system, she has repeatedly drawn upon her faith, sometimes to the chagrin of those who also share her gender.

The Double-Bind

A copy of an editorial being distributed outside of Masjid Baiturrahman on Friday makes clear there is no Islamic prohibition on women serving as leaders.

Last Friday, outside of Masjid Baiturrahman, men were handing out photocopies of an editorial printed in the local newspaper, Rakyat Aceh.[5] An older and highly respected ulama in Aceh, Abu Tumin, was quoted as saying that there is no text in the Qur’an or the Hadiths specifically prohibiting women from serving as leaders. Attentive readers will note that banning women from leadership, just like holding a stick while preaching, is thus an act of law creation, not law enforcement. It is not coincidental that the city’s central masjid is again the site of a dispute about Islamic law.

Abu Tumin’s decision to publicly address this point demonstrates just how hot this topic is right now in Banda Aceh, and it is in this political climate that Illiza has had to shape her public image as a leader. Her political platform is not dissimilar from that of her predecessor, Mawardi, who was widely respected, but she has not shared the levels of voter approval he consistently enjoyed. An undeniable reason for this is because she is a woman leading a people who openly debate whether women can lead.[6]

“There’s a kind of double bind that women find themselves in. On the one hand, yes, be smart, stand up for yourself. On the other hand, don’t offend anybody, don’t step on toes, or you’ll be somebody that nobody likes because you’re too assertive.”
~Hillary Rodham Clinton

That Abu Tumin’s letter is still necessary after three years serving as the mayor (and in the year 2017) indicates just how constrictive the double-bind that traps female leaders is. In fighting her way out, Illiza has summoned her faith, casting herself as a devout Muslim given to public shows of strength.

In celebration of Banda Aceh’s 801st birthday in 2015, Illiza joined law enforcement officials in a show of strength.

The divisive tactics she has employed in her attempt to overcome doubts of her political legitimacy have also reduced her likeability.

One of her less strategic forays into burnishing her credentials as a Muslim occurred in March 2015, when she very publicly suggested that the uniforms of the city’s soccer team, which she said she often watched with her dad when she was young, were not acceptable under Islamic law. “I will watch Persiraja if their uniforms are designed according to the syariat, not revealing their knees.”[7]

Given that Muslim women’s bodies are so often the focus of such conversations, Illiza can be commended for encouraging men to comply as well. Syariah law does not attend only to women’s dress – men are expected to cover their body from above the navel to below the knee. But the soccer team had been violating this rule since it’s founding in 1957 without much, if any, public concern.

It is hard to say what the public might have thought of Illiza had she stopped there. She had exposed an inconsistency and posed the problem for public consideration. She had made clear that as a good Muslim women, she would not watch the team unless they wore longer shorts, as is her right. But the mayor had grander schemes for the team: “By showing teamwork, sportsmanship, not terrorizing opponents, not intimidating referees, and keeping audiences orderly, our soccer team can spread our Islamic character throughout the world.”

The response of a blogger using the handle Azzin captured the preponderance of public reactions to her suggestion that their beloved soccer team become an Islamic propaganda campaign: “Agree. And Islam prohibits leadership by women. What about that part – Is that not prohibited? Doesn’t Banda Aceh observe syariah law? This cannot be allowed by any means!”[8]

I found myself wondering how the public would have reacted to the same suggestion had it been posed by the former (male) mayor, Mawardy. Perhaps time has hardened sentiments, but everyone I talked to went right around the question, insisting that only Illiza would make an issue of the length of men’s soccer shorts.

Illiza (left) tried and failed to make the soccer team wear uniforms that comply with syariah law. It is unclear whether her loss should be credited to her tactics or her identity.

Politics and Patriarchy

Civil rights advocate and critical race scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989 to describe the way that social identities overlap and interlock into complex systems of oppression.[9] The theory proposes that most laws and policies only attend to one marginalized identity, but not the intersection of multiple oppressed identities. As a result, the oppression experienced by “multiple minorities,” such as Muslim women, resists alleviation.

It seems to me that Illiza’s initial intention was to ingratiate herself to Banda Aceh voters by striving to make the city more Muslim. However, the people of the city are more than just Muslim, and Illiza learned the hard way that political Islam is a double-edged sword.

When her hopes were dashed against the “glass wall,” she did not relent in her desire to shatter the glass ceiling – and she did not lay down her arms. Instead, she has sought to endear herself to men and observant Muslims by wielding her weapon against a group less empowered to defend themselves – young women.

In the aftermath of the Persiraja encounter, she has doubled down on one part of her identity – her Islamic faith – by going hard on those who share her gender. Instead of stepping on toes adorned with cleats, she now aims for those in high heels.

In this Newsletter, I share the perspectives of five young women who cut their political teeth under an administration that may end Wednesday. To ensure their safety and anonymity, the discussion was held online. For the same reason, I have concealed their identities. This sample is not intended to be representative, but their stories are informative.

I began by asking, “What challenges do women face in being and becoming leaders, especially here in Aceh?”

“I think some people still see women as weak, incompetent individuals,” replied Laura (a pseudonym). Tabatha agreed: “Aceh people, especially men, underestimate women too much…if they include [a] woman in a political party, that’s only [as a] complement.” Taking this argument a step further, Beth said, “Women are not taken seriously. And when we do something wrong, people will simply say ‘That’s it! That’s why a woman should never be a leader.’”

The strength of their responses to my initial question caught me off-guard, and gave voice to the sentiment that provoked Abu Tumin to pen his editorial. The human implications that derive from repeated exposure to such male-dominant discourse were then captured in a question posed by Beth: “…do you guys think that people see us as weak because of what we are, or that’s just the common belief that people won’t even try to look at [in] different ways?”

My fingers rested idly on my laptop as I awaited answers to this question. The first response was earnest, but because I read Beth’s question as an inquiry into how internalized patriarchy is here, I found Tabatha’s sentiment disconcerting:

“I don’t agree with woman leadership for some places, such as Aceh. Talking as a Muslim, I believe that there are many reasons why Allah states in Quran [that] men are leader[s] for women…None of the regulations forbid women to be a leader, but Allah and Rasulullah mentioned [that] all leadership correlates to men. I strongly believe it means that women are better not being a leader. Women are created for being mothers who love and teach both man and woman at the same time. Why? Because women are blessed [with] a sensitive feeling…Men are blessed [with] strong ‘thought’ to decide something.”

I was curious as to how her counterparts would reply, but responses to Tabatha’s statement were nixed by the next response, which provided an answer to my initial question: “the pressure mostly come[s] from men in [our] community. Actually this men-should-lead-women [idea has] linger[ed for a] very long time. I think there were some change[s] after kemerdekaan [“freedom”] period [which is] why this phenomenon happen[ed],”[10] noted Vivian.[11]

The conversational shift to women as leaders made for a nice segue to my next question: What are your impressions of Bu Illiza as a woman, as a Muslim, and as a leader? This multi-part question generated qualified responses.

“I don’t know her personally, but I think she is a fine person. As a leader, I don’t like her because of her hypocrisy, not because she’s a woman,” said Laura.

Vivian’s response addressed my consideration of how Illiza compared to her predecessor in the public eye: “If I talk about her as a woman and person, it is fine that she is…our mayor. But from the way she…run[s] the government, I am not [for] her at all. Illiza only re-run[s] the system which Mawardi has made. She doesn’t hit it well, she make[s] it worst.”

Jaclyn fielded the question in a similarly even-handed fashion – but dug into the intersectional dimension of the question a bit more purposefully: “As a woman I [am] proud [of] her [for] becoming a mayor. As a person, first time I met her, I like[d] her. She is talented and humble. But as a Muslim, I think, ‘not her again,’ …because she always break[s] her rules. And she take[s] credit [for] what other[s] do, like e-goverment, e-kinerja… when she campaign[ed] she claim[ed she would do] what the former mayor [did], but she [is] not doing anything except mak[ing] other[s] follow her rule[s] with sharia.”

Simultaneously supporting her own claims and Laura’s assertion that Illiza can be a bit hypocritical, Jaclyn provided a case in point: “she tell[s] us that [the] cinema is haram [“forbidden”] cause that is adultery place [sic]. But she [has starred in] 2 movie[s], and play[ed in] a theater in 2009. {That’s} OK if she want[s] become an artist…”

Illiza starred in the 2016 film “Surga Menanti” [“Heaven Awaits”].

Indeed, a quick internet search shows that Illiza did star in a movie, “Surga Menanti” [“Heaven Awaits”} – and not even in the distant past. The film began screening throughout Indonesia in June of last year…but not in Banda Aceh.

Piling on to the strong case already made, Vivian responded in the parlance of her times: “hahahhaa our mayor was an artist #NotProudOfHer”

The hashtag pushed us to transition to a discussion of another of Illiza’s controversial initiatives. In May 2015 (only two months after her defeat on the soccer field), the mayor began sweeping the city’s hangout spaces in an aggressive enforcement of syariah law. She reportedly grabbed mikes from MCs at karaoke parlors, dressing them down in front of friends for wearing inappropriate clothing, and forced coffeeshops to close where young men and women were sitting too close together.

Two months after the soccer debacle, Illiza began busting up Banda Aceh’s social scene by showing up in person to enforce (her personal understanding of) syariah law.

This culminated in an attempt to institute jam malam [night time, or a curfew] for women in Aceh.

Banda Aceh’s youth took to Instagram to voice their disapproval,[12] interweaving their responses with the hashtag #BandaAcehMasukAkal [#BandaAceh,MakeSense].[13]

I was curious to know how lasting an impression Illiza’s sweeping made, so my next question was: #BandaAcehMasukAkal. Curfew. Good idea or bad? Why?

“Jam Malam failed before she ever implemented it. There were so many arguments about it,” quipped Vivian, just before Jaclyn picked up right where she left off: “I don’t think sweeping or jam malam [was] to enforce sharia to public place. Because before that rule, she ask[ed the] Islamic police to close public place[s] that [were] mesum [“sexually inappropriate”]. They said that sweeping [and] jam malam [were] to protect women. But I don’t know…protecting what? The gover[n]ment made a rule to take people’s freedom.”

This resonated with Laura. “She said that the curfew is to protect women from exploitation and possible sexual harassment. I don’t think it’s fair. Sexual harassment does not occur because women decide to go out after 11 pm. That’s victim-blaming.”

Here, even Tabatha was in agreement: “I guess she did not really mean the regulation for discipline as stated. It [was just] ‘cari nama’ [looking for name (similar to cari muka)]. If she keep[s] running it as stated, I myself strongly disagree [with] the regulation.” Beth chimed in, noting “Ha! I agree with Tabatha. Sometimes the government just mention[ed] it, looking for the spotlight.”

Vivian noted that in response to public fervor, Illiza had turned the spotlight around by hosting a public discussion at Syiah Kuala University.[14] “People who disagree[d] remained silent at that time because the place [was] full of people who…were intimidating through their words…it was not [a] fair public discussion.”

Those Who Don’t Learn from the Past…

Aceh’s heroes fought and bled to keep their land free. From Malahayati to Cut Nyak Dhien, Acehnese Muslim women have put their lives on the line as military commanders – those suggesting these women belong in the kitchen clearly don’t know their history. Aceh’s women deserve a place at the deciding table.

There are parallels to be drawn between Illiza’s struggles and those of the first sultana of Aceh, Taj ul-Alam Safiatuddin. Both female leaders were denied the authority and respect that their male predecessors had been granted automatically. Safiatuddin’s sultanate was so weakened by being undermined thus that her authority had become limited to the capital city, which now demarcates the limits of Illiza’s power. Detractors questioned the legitimacy of both women using nearly similar religious arguments, which means this question has remained open for at least 400 years. Each of these female leaders tried to assert themselves through largely symbolic acts.

But this is where they part ways. Safiatuddin’s reign was noted for its softer and more flexible approach, which enabled Aceh to fend off the Dutch even as the nearby kingdoms of Mataram, Ternate, Banten, and Makassar fell to the VOC. Contrastingly, Illiza has been markedly more aggressive on her people even as she has collaborated with Jakarta and foreign investors to develop the local economy. Whether this says more about the differences in their strategy or the changing of the times is another open question.

Twice as hard for half the credit? We’ll see how much love she gets at the polls on the day after Valentine’s…

Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal seeks to earn the mayorship she inherited.

“It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people – women as well as men.”

~Susan B. Anthony

[1] All translations are my own. http://www.cnnindonesia.com/nasional/20160210004802-20-109918/pemkot-banda-aceh-haramkan-valentine-day/

[2] http://www.iqrasense.com/muslim-character/the-sin-of-riyaa-showing-off.html

[3] http://www.bbc.com/indonesia/majalah/2016/02/160210_trensosial_aceh_valentine

[4] Her claim that kids are sending Valentine’s greetings via social media is misplaced, though not unfounded. Kids everywhere increasingly communicate their affections privately via social media, but her focus on Valentine’s greetings signals a naivety about just what kids are doing with their phones.

[5] https://www.goaceh.co/berita/baca/2017/02/09/abu-tumin-tak-ada-nash-perempuan-haram-memimpin

[6]  The fact that 54% of white women voted for President Donald Trump suggests that patriarchal assumptions of male leadership are not unique to Islam or Indonesia.

[7] http://walikota.bandaacehkota.go.id/news/read/208/illiza—persiraja-bisa-saja-digunakan-sebagai-media-untuk-berdakwah.html

[8] http://suksesyahud.blogspot.co.id/2016/04/walikota-banda-aceh-instruksi-tertibkan.html

[9] https://www.ted.com/talks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersectionality

[10] I have opted to remain as true to their written words as possible, and to keep my edits evident, to showcase their thinking and English fluency. Though it is tangential to the argument of this Newsletter, we can consider how English-language learning influences political beliefs.

[11] In my last newsletter (JVC-3), UIN professor Inayatillah similarly suggested that the marginalization of women in Aceh resulted from the process of nationalization.

[12] https://www.instagram.com/p/3RBXJ0t-ne/

[13] http://aceh.tribunnews.com/2015/05/29/jadi-trending-topic-bandaacehmasukakal-diserbu-netizen

[14] http://aceh.tribunnews.com/2015/06/05/bahas-jam-malam-mahasiswa-unsyiah-gelar-diskusi-publik-bersama-illiza