JAKARTA, Indonesia -- A plan by officials in an Indonesian city to ban women from straddling motorbikes has prompted an outcry from critics, who say local leaders are infringing on women's safety and freedom in the name of religion.
Leaflets have been circulating for a week in Lhokseumawe, in Aceh Province on the island of Sumatra, informing residents about a proposed bylaw that would prohibit women from sitting in a straddle position or holding on to the driver while riding on the back of a motorbike.
Most Indonesians are Muslims, but Aceh is the only province in the country that strictly enforces Islamic law, or Shariah. The province already has bylaws prohibiting gambling and adultery and restricting how women may dress in public, with penalties that include public canings.
The mayor of Lhokseumawe, Suaidi Yahya, proposed the straddling ban in a New Year's speech, saying that it was "improper" for women to sit with spread legs and that women should only sit sidesaddle, a practice that opponents say is both less comfortable and less safe.
"We want to save women from things that will cause them to violate Shariah law," Mr. Suaidi told The Jakarta Globe following his speech. "We wish to honor women with this ban, because they are delicate creatures."
Officials in the Indonesian Home Affairs Ministry, however, have called the proposal discriminatory.
"Laws need to be equal between men and women," said Zudan Arif Fakrulloh, head of the ministry's bureau of legal affairs. "Not everything is equal in the culture in Aceh, but there should be equal rights for sitting in this way."
Government agencies responsible for monitoring rights abuses also have criticized the proposal.
"It's discrimination, and it objectifies women," said Destika Gilang Lestari, a coordinator at the Aceh branch of the government's Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence.
Local administrations have had the power to issue bylaws since 2001, but the national government can overturn them, as it has done thousands of times. Rights advocates say, though, that none of those cases involved Shariah law or gender discrimination.
Advocates have called on women to ignore the proposed ban.
"We're encouraging citizens in Lhokseumawe not to heed this call, to teach the local government a lesson in drafting fairer laws," Affan Ramli, a spokesman for the Care for Shariah Civil Society Network, told the state news agency on Friday.
Opponents say they are concerned in part because such a law, if enacted, could spread to other areas of the country. Since Aceh started implementing Islamic law in 2002, some other localities have also adopted bans on alcohol and on women appearing in public at night unaccompanied by a relative.
In most of Indonesia there is little support for imposing Shariah law. Even in Aceh, many people say the laws are mainly symbolic and are unevenly enforced. Still, the authorities in Jakarta seldom speak out against the province's laws, partly out of fear of being seen as un-Islamic.
Rights advocates say it is time they started. "This bylaw is basically more about controlling morality than more rational considerations," said Andy Yentriyani, a member of the government's National Commission on Violence Against Women. "If this continues, we will not be able to guarantee basic freedoms."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.