To straddle or not to straddle, that is the question

In his speech to welcome the New Year, Lhokseumawe Mayor Suaidi Yahya announced his plan to enact a regional ordinance (qanun) that will prohibit women from straddling motorcycles on the grounds that: “It will provoke male drivers. It is also to protect women from undesirable conditions.”

How protective is the bylaw for women when sitting sideways actually puts women in a vulnerable position due to imbalance of the motorcycle.

The mayor appears to have not heeded the lesson learned from the recent death of a 23-year-old Indian lady, a victim of gang-rape committed by six men. Suaidi does not realize that rape is not triggered by how a woman acts or dresses but rather by the society that allows it to happen: A society that points an accusatory finger toward the victim rather than the perpetrators.

Nonetheless, the outrageous non-straddle policy plan has won support from regional legislative council member Yusuf Samad, who has said that sitting sideways is more appropriate to Aceh culture and sharia. In his opinion when a woman straddles a motorcycle her body curve is on display and this runs counter to the Islamic law under which Aceh, as part of its special autonomy status, follows.

How far should Aceh go in its adherence of sharia? Should people in the province return to the era of camel riding? Citing another remark made by Mayor Suaidi regarding his resistance to women wearing jeans, Lhokseumawe’s likelihood to return to pre-machinery age is high in his tenure.


In Indonesia’s regional autonomy districts only regional legislature (DPRD) can impeach local leaders. With councillors such as Samad demanding more stringent sharia implementation for the sake of “religious values”, leaders like Suaidi can feel comfortable in their positions. Sharing the mindset of regulating the way women act or dress, rather than taking measures that can stop the mistreatment of women or increase security measures around their housing complexes or workplaces, the two leaders are actually supporting undesirable conditions for rape and other forms of harassment to take place.

The government and politicians’ mindset should be altered from controlling women to persuading society to end this culture of victim guilt and to tell men to refrain from rape. There is an urgent need for recognition as we are currently committing a major injustice to women by disempowering them — limiting their movements, their choice of dress and the people they socialise with — while the real criminals are left unchecked.

The perpetrators know that most rape cases do not reach court due to the social stigma attached to the victims and their families if reports are filed. Only 46 percent of rape incidents were reported to the police with around 30 percent reaching the court (US and UK National Violence against Women Survey, 2006-2010).

India has experienced a high a number of rapes cases with a very low number of perpetrators actually punished. In 1990 a total of 10,068 rape cases were reported and 44 percent of alleged perpetrators were convicted. A decade later 22,172 cases were reported but only 26 percent of suspects were found guilty (National Crime Records Bureau, 2011 Statistics). In New Delhi, where the recent gang rape occurred, the conviction rate stands at only 7.6 percent. Of 2,500 cases reported only 190 people were held accountable.

In Indonesia, the statistics are unclear. The National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan) recorded 400,939 cases of violence against women from 1998 to 2011. It is very difficult to measure the percentage of rape cases because only 20 percent of women who were victims of sexual harassment had declined to tell the truth because of their trauma (Fact sheet of the 16-day campaign to commemorate the International Day of Violence against Women, 2012).

Crime statistics published in 2010 by the Central Statistics Agency (BPS) that gathered together nationwide police reports and exposed that the number of rape cases, showed an increase in incidents compared to other crimes.

Rape went up from 1.6 percent in 2002 to 2.9 percent in 2008 with cases numbering 2,906. However, we must remember that the number of rape cases reported is only the tip of the iceberg as Indonesia lacks victim trauma assistance and sensitive gender-balanced police personnel.

The limited number of female police officers to assist in sexual assault cases is in itself a great hurdle. Based on a UN survey in 2000 the number of female police officers in India was the lowest in Asia — numbering only 2.2 percent of the force — Singapore, on the other hand, was the highest with 19.1 percent. However, India is improving; in 2012 New Delhi recorded that female police officers accounted for 7 percent of the force.

Indonesia was not included in the UN survey but at the current time women police officers account for 3.7 percent of the force (Kompas, September 2012). Aceh is more complicated as it has sharia police who are authorized to conduct raids and punish the Muslim population who fail to follow Islamic law.

Aceh’s development planning bureau (Bappeda) reported in 2011 that the province employed around 1,300 sharia police personelle without specifying their gender, capacity or ability to comply with legal procedures.

In addition to the low number of female police officers and the culture of blaming and shaming rape victims, Indonesia is still suffering from lengthy trials and a corrupt judicial system. The fact that BPS does not hold on record the number of rape cases gives little hope for justice for victims and their families despite the efforts made to report the crime. It is impunity that encourages perpetrators to rape rather than the way women sit.

Hopefully Mayor Suaidi and council member Samad will realize that no matter how loosely they wrap up their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters in the darkest hijab or prohibit their female relatives from straddling motorcycles, their efforts will bear no fruit as long as rapists go unpunished.

The writer is an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.


Published in Jakarta Post, 7 January 2013


Family on motorcycle photo courtesy of Telegraph UK from

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