SINCE Monday (7/1/2013), women in Lhokseumawe, the once bustling oil town on Aceh’s east coast, have been banned from sitting in the straddle position (mengangkang) when travelling as passengers on motorbikes. This ban not only includes women travelling with men who are not their relatives, but also women travelling with male relatives, their husbands and even with other women.
This blanket prohibition exposes that the primary purpose of the ban is not so much to stop the “hugging” action required by a passenger to remain safely on the back of a moving motorbike; an action which is considered to be sexual when carried out between the sexes, and an intimacy which is already banned throughout Aceh for all non-related men and women. Rather, it would appear, the primary purpose of the ban is to stop women being seen in such a “compromising” position; that is, with their legs apart in public.
Clearly Lhokseumawe’s Mayor Suadi Yahya who authorised the ban has a very sick mind. How sitting fully clothed, with long sleeves, ankle length pants or skirt and a headscarf, as is already prescribed for Muslim women throughout Aceh, is a threat to women’s “dignity” (marwah) and “values” (martabat) can only be imagined. If the act of a fully clothed woman sitting or standing in public with her legs at more than a forty-five degree angle verges on the pornographic then perhaps we can also look forward to seeing women hassled with trigonometers and measuring tapes as they sit at their desks or in cafes. Perhaps driving a motorbike will soon be deemed to be equally compromising.
Are the women of North Aceh to be condemned to shuffling around on foot for fear of spreading their legs too wide? If the act of women being seen in public with their legs apart is so offensive perhaps there should also be a ban on women bending to tend to their crops in the rice fields and women squatting to lift up children, shopping bags and washing baskets. Perhaps Yayha should also mobilise a force of male volunteers to take over these tasks.
According to Yahya, women travelling in the straddle position contravene the very fabric of “Acehnese values and culture”. However, I for one don’t remember seeing pictures of the Acehnese heroines Malahayati, the Acehnese Sultanas, Cut Nyak Dhien or Cut Meutia ever riding a motorbike, ngangkang style or otherwise. And I certainly don’t remember seeing pictures of GAM’s Inong Balee sitting side-saddle and they roared off on the back of motorbikes into battle. His argument would be laughable if its consequences weren’t so serious.
Yahya’s ban must be opposed for restraining women’s freedom of movement and ability to participate safely and without discrimination in society. Women going about their daily tasks should not be punished for the disturbing sexualisation of the female body which is projected onto them, most commonly by men such as Yahya who do not have to live with similar restrictions on their own freedom of movement.
One might have hoped that the failed effort to ban women wearing pants in Meulaboh, West Aceh, and the tragic suicide of the young teenage woman in East Aceh last year after she was arrested by the province’s Syariah police for being out at night without a male chaperone and accused of being a “whore” and “prostitute” could have acted as a wakeup call and prompted an important step away from such punitive restrictions on women’s behaviour. Unfortunately Yahya appears determined to oversee a repeat of these mistakes and the women of Aceh must again pay the price. 
Jess Melvin in a PhD
student with the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies
at the University of Melbourne, Australia