West Aceh is an Indonesian regency in the north-western part of Sumatra. It is about the size of Luxembourg or Istria and is one of the areas hardest hit by the 2004 tsunami. It is also the only part of a predominantly Muslim, but otherwise secular Indonesia which upholds sharia law. In 2010 West Aceh police set up road-blocks to search cars and buses for nothing less than…women wearing tight trousers. The ladies, or should we say, the “offenders” were taken away to a security post and their details were recorded. They were then briefed on sharia law, instructed to put on one of the 20,000 long skirts the local government ordered from tailors in Jakarta and were asked to sign an agreement not to repeat the offence.
Imah, a 40-year old housewife, protests not because religion is being enforced by law in the secular state of Indonesia, but because she believes Islam does not prohibit her from wearing trousers.
Two years later (more precisely, a few days ago), an Iowa, USA court of law decided in Knight’s favour in the Nelson vs. Knight case. Mrs. Nelson, 32, worked as an assistant for Mr. Knight, a 53-year old dentist, for 10 years and was recently fired for “being too attractive”. Mrs. Nelson took Mr. Knight to court over the layoff because she considered the rationale behind it illegal and ridiculous. Dr Knight’s lawyers argued that it was Mrs Nelson who acted inappropriately and that that was why she was fired, even though her demeanour at work was impeccably professional. It is probably worth pointing out that this was Iowa’s higest court and the court decision has been made 7:0, by an all-male panel of judges. More importantly, because the US legal system is precedent-based, every decision – including this one – effectively becomes the law and can be used in similar future cases.
I would hazard a guess that it was quite likely that you thought the story about the skirts in Indonesia was ridiculous, that it represented a significant violation of personal freedom, but that that’s somewhere in a Third World country, certainly not “here”. However, next to each other, these two stories suggest that no matter how much western media engines try to paint over the underlying picture, the picture is still one of sexism, injustice and runaway power structures losing touch with why they were instituted in the first place.