Just before noon prayers one recent Friday — a mandatory session for men — the Shariah police’s all-female brigade hopped onto a Toyota pickup to begin patrols. Dressed in olive uniforms, the officers hewed to the city center, away from the areas worst hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. They urged stragglers to hurry to the nearest mosque and exhorted the recalcitrant to yield to God’s authority.
“Dear followers of Islam, people of Banda Aceh,” blared a loudspeaker on the Toyota, “our city has applied Shariah. It’s almost praying time. Close all shops, stop all business activities. No more buying and selling.”
Aceh has long been know as “Mecca’s veranda,” because Indonesians used to travel here to board ships bound for Islam’s holiest city on their hajj, or pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. Aceh’s self-identity, if rooted in Islam, was always somewhat apart from the rest of Indonesia. Local forces fighting for autonomy, whether from Dutch colonizers or Suharto’s three-decade military rule, always demanded the freedom to carry out Shariah.
So as Aceh separatists and the central government forged a peace agreement in the last decade, Aceh won semiautonomy and the right to Shariah. The authorities began putting Shariah into practice in 2001, widening and reinforcing it every few years with legal revisions. The Shariah police, officially known as “wilayatul hisbah,” or the vice and virtue patrol, began operating in 2005 with 13 officers and now has 62, including 14 women.