Women, Motorbikes, and Shari’a in Nigeria and Indonesia

This Winter Quarter at Northwestern I’ll be teaching a course on Islam and politics in the contemporary world. Much of the course will focus on three cases: Egypt, Indonesia, and Nigeria. As I prepare for the course I’ve been paying much closer attention to news out of Indonesia. Nigeria and Indonesia are very different countries, and existing regional shari’a projects in the two countries are also different, but this:

A city in the Indonesian province of Aceh which follows Sharia has ordered female passengers not to straddle motorbikes behind male drivers.

Suaidi Yahya, mayor of Lhokseumawe, says it aims to save people’s “morals and behaviours”.

Leaflets have been sent out to government offices and residents to inform them about the regulation.

Aceh is the only Indonesian province that follows Sharia.

Under the new regulation, the mayor says that women passengers are only allowed to sit “side-saddle” because straddling the bike seat violates Islamic values.

reminded me a little of this (2005):

Motorbike taxi riders and religious marshals have clashed in the northern Nigerian state of Kano over a ban that stops women travelling on the bikes.
In accordance with Sharia law, men and women are not allowed to travel together on public transport.

Women have ignored the ban, being implemented this week, saying there are not enough transport alternatives.

A few scholars have mentioned to me their view that the “shari’a project” in northern Nigeria is/was aimed partly or even primarily at controlling women’s bodies in public space. I think there is much more to movements for shari’a implementation or re-implementation, but I do see why those scholars think that way. And I do not think these motorbike laws should be seen as the product of isolated officials’ eccentric thinking. The question of proper gender roles in public transportation is an issue that has provoked real debate in parts of northern Nigeria, and it seems in Aceh too. In that context, it’s interesting to think about the various things motorbikes can symbolize.

“When you see a woman straddle, she looks like a man. But if she sits side-saddle, she looks like a woman,” Suaidi said.

Finally, I think these laws and debates point to how broad the scope of shari’a implementation projects can be. Sometimes the international media gives us an image of shari’a as wholly concerned with cutting off thieves’ hands and stoning adulteresses. But on a day-to-day level in modern states that are working to practice a form of shari’a, the concerns are often quite different, and sometimes surprisingly mundane.

9 thoughts on “Women, Motorbikes, and Shari’a in Nigeria and Indonesia

  1. I don’t think how women sit on motorcycles is the most important question about “Shari’a implementation”. There is a much more fundamental question: “how does Shari’a fit in with the 21st Century & in communities with significant populations of Christians”.

    Basically, Shari’a is an exclusive system. It does not work well in multi-religious societies (as the experience in Northern Nigeria shows). It has a corrosive effect on national unity.

    These are the most important issues.

    • I am of the opinion that your question should not be answered in isolation. Another question that begs answering is “how imposed secular law affects the religious rights of majority Muslim communities in western Nigeria”. May be Alex can help in doing justice to this topics.

      • Is Nigeria a religious state or a secular state?

        If Nigeria is a secular state, then the secular law is not “imposed”. If Nigeria is a religious state, then let us write it into our constitution without any ambiguity.

        I actually am Nigerian. I have to live with these things. I am not a scholar dealing with the abstract. I don’t like the fact that I am treated like a stranger in parts of the nation simply because I’m not a Muslim.

        This thing has led to thousands of deaths and may eventually lead to a partition of the nation if not handled well.

      • I need to add that there is a myth that has gained traction in academic circles. I.e. that Islamic Northern Nigeria can progress independent of the rest of Nigeria. That it can set its own rules & regulations, define its own response to modernity and proceed totally ignoring the rest of the nation.

        It is a dangerous myth and it will result in a lot of trouble.

  2. Alex:

    I’ve made the Nigeria/Indonesia comparison a number of times, including in my diss and a forthcoming article on sharia politics in Nigeria. Have you done much reading in the Islamic bylaws passed by a good chunk of Indonesian local communities in the early 2000s? There’s some really interesting comparisons to be made with Nigeria in terms of the difficulty in getting from legislation to actual implementation at the local level.

    • Brandon, thanks for commenting. I’ll look out for that article. Most of my reading on Indonesia has been on NU and President Wahid, and I am only now starting to read about shari’a there. I read Hefner’s chapter in his edited volume on Shari’a, and I’ve looked at some ICG reports on Indonesia – what else do you recommend?

  3. Alex:

    The best short introduction to sharia in Indonesia outside Aceh is this short piece by Robin Bush, “Regional ‘Sharia’ Regulations in Indonesia :Anomaly or Symptom?” in Greg Fealy and Sally White eds, Expressing Islam: Religious Life and Politics in Indonesia (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008). It’s online at: http://asiafoundation.org/resources/pdfs/ShariaRegulations08RobinBush.pdf

    Beyond that, I’d look at:

    Michael Buehler (2008) ‘The Rise of Shari’a By-Laws in Indonesian Districts: An Indication for Changing Patterns of Power Accumulation and Political Corruption’ South East Asia Research, 16:2, pp. 255-85

    The January 2012 issue of The Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal (21:1), edited by Mark Cammack and Michael Feener

    Cammack and Feener (eds) (2007), Islamic Law in Contemporary Indonesia: Ideas and Institutions (Harvard University Press)

    Arskal Salim (2008) Challenging the Secular State: The Islamization of Law in Modern Indonesia (University of Hawaii Press)

    If you need/want more, I can pull together a slightly more comprehensive list. Hope that helps.

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