Even as soccer fans around the world watched and celebrated the incredible performances of the gifted athletes at this year’s recently concluded Women’s World Cup (congrats Team USA!), Islamic organizations and ulema (Islamic scholars) in the ultra-conservative region of Aceh in Indonesia have been denouncing plans for a women’s soccer league in the region, arguing that women playing soccer is haram (forbidden) under Islamic sharia law.
Indonesia’s Ministry of Youth and Sports (Menpora) had previously announced plans to hold a national-level U-17 women’s soccer competition at Perta Arun Gas Stadium in the city of Lhokseumawe in Aceh from July to September of this year. But, last Thursday, an organization calling itself the Communication Forum for Community Organizations and Youth Organizations Guarding Islamic Law in the City of Lhokseumawe came out to protest the competition, saying that soccer violates the dignity of Acehnese women.
“The league under the Indonesian Ministry of Youth and Sports is very contrary to the dignity, virtue and honor of Acehnese women,” one of the group’s representatives, Teungku Sulaiman Lhokweng, said on Thursday as quoted by Kompas.
The protesters asked that Menpora and the Indonesian Student Football League Agency (BLiSPI) cancel the competition in Aceh, and also demanded apologies from the organizations.
“We urge BLiSPI to openly apologize to the people of Aceh because their actions have hurt our feelings and local wisdom by exploiting Acehnese women in the field of soccer,” Sulaiman continued.
The group’s calls were quickly reiterated by the Aceh Ulama Consultative Assembly (MPU), considered the highest clerical body in the region, which declared women playing soccer to be haram. An MPU representative, Teungku Faisal Ali, told Viva that in Acehnese culture, soccer is a sport that is generally only played by men, because women who play are in danger of showing their “aurat” (parts of the body that need to covered in Islam) by displaying their bodies and being watched by a large group of people.
Faisal acknowledged that soccer was played by women openly in other parts of Indonesia, but said such a thing was not yet possible in Aceh.
“It may be different from other regions, soccer in other regions are sometimes held on a closed field, with female referees, female line judges, female viewers. But not us (in Aceh), we are not ready for that,” he said.
But, in actuality, there are already numerous women’s soccer teams in Aceh. In fact, the weekend prior (June 29-30), four U-17 women’s teams from Langsa, Banda Aceh, Lhokseumawe, and Central Aceh had competed for the chance to represent their region in the planned national tournament, with the Langsa team emerging the winner.
BLiSPI Aceh selection coordinator Ishak Rizal said that they had not received any rejection from the local community previously and said that the players wore uniforms that were compliant with sharia law.
“[They used] sharia and Muslim clothing that also covered their aurat more neatly than other sports. There was no rejection of the tournament,” Ishak said Friday as quoted by Kumparan.
Despite that, the same day Ishak issued a statement on behalf of the BLiSPI selection committee, saying they “apologized profusely” if they had acted in a way that was contrary to the values of Islam”.
Although there has been no official announcement regarding whether the U-17 national competition will still take place in Aceh, it seems unlikely after MPU declared it haram and prominent Aceh politicians said they would demand that Menpora cancel it.
Aceh is the only region of Indonesia that has special autonomy from the national government to implement explicitly sharia-based laws such as public canings for adulterers and those criminalized for their sexual orientation.
Aceh has also been much in the news recently over the regional government’s controversial proposal to legalize and regulate the practice of polygamy, a proposal Aceh politicians argue is needed to protect women’s rights but which women’s rights activists say will only hurt their position in society.