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.


The Tenth Parallel

I began hearing about journalist Eliza Griswold’s The Tenth Parallel , which explores Christian-Muslim conflict in Africa and Asia, even before it came out. Yesterday I was reminded of it on Twitter by a posting from the Carnegie Council, which recently hosted an event with Griswold. I am planning to check out the book – have others read it yet?

The New York Times praises it:

“The Tenth Parallel” is a beautifully written book, full of arresting stories woven around a provocative issue — whether fundamentalism leads to violence — which Griswold investigates through individual lives rather than caricatures or abstractions.


Griswold’s journey is made all the more interesting because of her personal motivations. The daughter of a leading liberal Episcopal bishop, she recalls being spooked by the consecration ceremony in which he lay facedown on the floor of the cathedral in Chicago with his legs and arms stretched out in the shape of a cross. As a young girl she saw the Bible “as a book of spells, one whose extravagant metaphors, whose terrible and powerful parables were ways to call God down to earth.” And as a teenager she feared that God would ask her to be a nun. “I spent those years wondering how it was that smart people could believe in God,” she writes.

In 2003 Griswold traveled to Sudan with Billy Graham’s son Franklin, who attempted to convert her by inviting her to pray with him. She could not find a logical reason to decline, since, as a good ecumenical Episcopalian, she had prayed with Sunnis and Sufi Muslims. She returned to Sudan five years later, after its leader was indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide. The war-torn country’s Christian south is preparing for a 2011 vote on whether to split from the Muslim north, which would break Africa’s largest country in half. Griswold also reports from Somalia at great personal risk, vividly describing in 30 pages the religious violence and ill-informed policies that America has pursued since its failed attempts to corral the murderous Aidid clan (members of which she meets with). More recently, Washington has been trying to weaken the Qaeda-linked Shabab gang and shore up a hapless Islamist government.

Sounds pretty fascinating. If I get a chance to read it I’ll post more, and if you read it please tell me what you think.