In the summer of 2012 I adventured to the semi-autonomous region of Aceh, Indonesia with two students (Libba & Breanna) and our teacher Professor Ibu Siti Kusujiarti. We wanted to learn more about the women of Aceh and had a few, vague notions about the region. Aceh had been at war with the central government since the 1970's. In an effort to bring peace to the region, the central government allowed the implementation of Islamic Law. The first implementation brought violence against women (perpetuated during “the Conflict” with the Central Government) to a climax. Then, the devastating 2004 tsunami shook an already war-torn region. During this time, the international community became aware of Aceh and the political strife of the region. Shari'ah Law was implemented again in the early 2000's.
As you can imagine I came into the situation with a few preconceived notions about the women of Aceh. I thought that because most Acehnese women (over 97%) are Muslim they were, therefore, oppressed victims of their religion. I also believed Acehnese women had no political voice or upward social mobility because they lived in a third world country.
Obviously I was egregiously wrong. So wrong, in fact, that my team and I wrote a paper about it. (Follow the link here http://vc.bridgew.edu/jiws/vol16/iss3/13/ to get the un-boiled down version, so graciously published by the Journal of International Women’s Studies ). In essence, our study determined that Muslim women of Aceh negotiated patriarchal norms and conditions, within a complex social structure that was also closely intertwined with matrifocal traditions, egalitarian spiritual convictions, and practices of women’s empowerment. Politically active, spiritually connected, and academically or otherwise driven, women of Aceh are intelligent, challenging, and above all empowered individuals who expressed the ability to negotiate and transcend social barriers.
I personally found the element of fashion to be a particularly biased topic with which we could dissect and investigate the element of empowerment within a patriarchal institution. The age old question: “TO VEIL OR NOT TO VEIL” is one that dates back to pre-colonial eras, gained momentum during the colonization of the ascribed “OTHER,” and is used as a weapon to subvert Muslim women for all angles – if she veils, she is oppressed; if she does not veil she is an infidel.
The symbols of fashion are subversive. A woman who shows a strand of hair, an earring, her elbow under a strict implementation of Shari’ah Law are taking a political stand, and a giant risk. And yet, tight pants, blue jeans, eyeliner, jewelry, traditional pants, brightly colored jilbab (Southeast Asian adaptation of the hijab) abounded in street markets and department stores of Aceh. Women wore loose clothing, dark colors, and headscarves. Chinese-Buddhist women wore no headscarves at all.
In a world that is so often painted as a binary, black and white still-photograph, I found vibrancy, color, life, passion, spirituality, culture and above all, complexity. Women of Aceh appeared along a spectrum of experience: some had been oppressed, victimized and others rose to places of power and success. Most, if not all, negotiated the Acehnese environment with flexibility and fluidity, embodying the word empowered.
Aceh opened my eyes to the simple notion that empowerment is not appearance; it is an active lifestyle made up of choices that, while may be influenced by exterior phenomenon, and may manifest externally, really shape one’s identity, character, and integrity. Empowerment, I learned, is a phenomenon that occurs when we transcend our boundaries, negotiate, compromise, grow, and challenge our preconceived notions of self and others. Empowerment manifests empowerment.
I will be forever grateful to my research team and to the beautiful women of Aceh, who made it possible for me to grow beyond my own learned experiences, challenge my own preconceived ideas, and transcend my own obstacles. Thank you. Forever, thank you. Terima Kasih.