Saturday, February 14, 2009

Living the Sharia Life

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In December 2004, Aceh, a province in the west part of Indonesia, received worldwide attention and support because of the devastation wreaked by a tsunami. This phenomenon of nature killed hundreds of thousands of people and caused destruction on the order of an atomic bomb blast. What is not so well know about Aceh is that in 1999, after a thirty-year struggle, it was granted special autonomy by the Indonesian government, allowing the province to apply laws based on fundamentalist Sharia Islam, known locally as qanun. Based on recent conversations by email and telephone with a young LGBT IQ (Intersex, queer) activist, located in Banda Aceh, the capital, this is a condensed and edited version of what we learned. In order to protect his identity we will call him “Ayyub”(not his real name). He currently works for a large intergovernmental institution.

Rights of Passage: What do you consider the challenges facing LGBT people in your country?

Ayyub: Aceh is well known as a province with a prominent influence of Islam. It is also called Serambi Mekka, the Veranda of Mecca since it used to be a center of Islamic civilization in Indonesia. [Since the enactment of Law No. 44 1999] many qanun based on Sharia Islam have been generated. As a matter of fact, many of these qanun are very biased and discriminatory particularly to marginalized groups like women and LGBT IQ. Currently, religion is used by the state to control men and women according to its standard, within which the only accepted sexuality is hetero and those who have another sexual orientation are regarded as “the other” or even an enemy that should be abolished.

ROP: Please describe your living situation.

Ayyub: Besides the challenges, I am still enjoying life in this sharia land. I am not alone, I have so many friends who always support me. I am [beginning] to learn how actually my religion supports homosexuality. It is the interpretation based on the culture of patriarchy that blames and regards LGBT IQ people as sinners. The holy texts are open to a more progressive interpretation. By continuing to learn the progressive teachings of Islam I wish someday to counter those [negative] arguments.

ROP: What other challenges exist?

Ayyub: This situation has created another challenge that I would call an internal challenge as it comes from LGBT IQ individuals themselves. Those social conditions [mentioned above] are a strong influence for them to not accept their sexuality. This is a big challenge. How do we expect a wider community to regard and accept us when we do not?

ROP: Describe the difficulties you have encountered in your life.

Ayyub: It was hard for me in the beginning to accept myself as gay. I regarded myself as an unforgivable sinner and not normal. I told my parents to send me to an Islamic board school with an expectation that by living a religious life I could gradually be healed of this homosexuality. I was sexually harassed there by other students and even found my first love, a senior who always defended and protected me. Later I went to university in a bigger city(Medan) where people live more freely. After university, I returned to Aceh and worked on the emergency response to the tsunami. So outcomes of my struggle now are: self acceptance, gaining confidence as a gay. These are my tools and power now to work and run my life and be useful to others.

Recently I attended a meeting to discuss qanun law on gambling, alcoholic beverages and close proximity (adultery). One of the participants raised the idea of including same sex adultery in the provision in order to “rid sodomites from our land”. I knew this statement was directed at me. I regarded this as a motivation and a challenge. This is what my LGBT IQ fellows and I should face and work to change such a paradigm.

Photo: A mosque stands alone in the ruins after the tsunami in a district of Banda Aceh, Aceh province, Western Indonesia. (AP Photos)

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