Courting couples targeted by vigilantes

Courting couples targeted by vigilantes
A couple sitting together at a beach in Bandar Aceh. The syariah police will patrol areas and catch unmarried couples if they are in isolated stretches and they can be charged with khalwat.

Three weeks ago, 23-year-old Wen was chatting with his 20-year-old girlfriend Pipit in broad daylight at a dock in Langsa, Aceh, when three villagers came across the couple and decided to make a quick buck.

"They demanded 400,000 rupiah (S$43) or they would report us to the village head for khalwat (close proximity) and call the syariah police.

"We were not doing anything wrong. We were just sitting and talking and it was daytime!" he says.

But wanting to spare Pipit's and his parents the shame and humiliation, Wen, a student who works part time at a coffee shop, called up friends, cousins, brothers and a "cool" uncle to borrow the money.

When he went to pick up the money, the three villagers kept his mobile phone as a "guarantee" to make sure he came back with the money.

"They call it wang damai (peace money) or wang cuci kampung (cleansing the village money) but it is nothing more than extortion," says Wen's very annoyed 30-year-old uncle Aris who lent him some money and agreed not to squeal on his nephew to the parents.

Wen makes only 800,000 rupiah and the "cleansing money" would take up half his pay cheque for the month.

Aris says that with the increased emphasis on syariah law in Aceh, such vigilante groups have sprouted up in villages. Since the syariah police cannot be everywhere, these vigilante groups take it upon themselves to be the "eyes and ears" of the syariah police.

But Aris notes that a number too are exploiting the situation to make a quick buck for themselves and young courting couples are often the prey.

Dini and Edy have been seeing each other for two years but because of the vigilantes and syariah police, they make sure when they meet after dark, it is at a well-lit public place and other people are around too.

"This is no longer the ancient times where parents do the matchmaking. We want to be able to meet someone we like, go out and see if this is the person we want to spend the rest of our lives with. What's wrong with that?" asks Dini, who was out on a date with Edy at a public park in Banda Aceh at night.

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