Solidarity and silence

I TYPE IN 'Aceh' and find a slew of photos depicting the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. Buried among them is the occasional holiday snap of the white sand beaches of Pulau Weh, the wet season surf at Lhok Nga. When I add the word 'women' to the Google Image search, among portraits of Suraiya Kamaruzzaman, who I'm meeting in a few days, and sepia photos of Tjoet Nja' Dhien, the beautiful aristocrat who led Acehnese guerilla forces against the Dutch, I'm struck by a photo of a woman on her knees. The woman is wearing mukena, the white headscarf and dress-like covering that Acehnese women often pray in. Her head is bent and her face crumples in origami-folds of pain, or expectation. Above her, towers a man with a cane wearing an executioner's mask. There's something primeval about it, something that evokes chilling echoes of Munch's The Scream or Angela Carter's short story The Executioner's Beautiful Daughter. The cane fibrillates, a split second from the woman's back. How many lashes has she endured? How many more to go? Has she slept with a man she's not married to? Has she been caught selling rice during Ramadan?

I wonder how many girls are watching, in silence, shadowing their mother's long skirts with their thumbs.

When I get to Aceh a few days later, I grill our driver on the canings. He tells me they're advertised and anyone can go. Apparently there hasn't been one in Banda Aceh for a while.

When I describe to him the face of the woman in the photo, he fires up a clove cigarette, nods and notes, 'Yeah. But the woman wouldn't have been cringing because it hurt. She would have been cringing from shame.'

ON TOUCHDOWN IN Banda Aceh the midday light is bright as magnesium – a shock after two months in Jakarta, where the air is the texture of old, hot tissues and pollution winds scarves around the high rise.

I'm here with Flo Hadjon, a husky-voiced woman from Surabaya who also lives in Jakarta. Both of us, blinking, pull out our headscarves to shade our eyes. Flo's a couple of years older than me, in her early thirties. She looks like an elf, has just had a cancer cut out of her throat, works as a designer, moonlights as a filmmaker, and is covered in tattoos. The tattoos are hand-drawn, Matisse-like. She's quick to give our driver the sobriquet Pak Aceh and he's quick to give her a quizzical, slightly pleased smile in return.

We're here to make a video portrait of Suraiya Kamaruzzaman, the overall winner of the 2012 N-Peace Awards, an initiative of the United Nations Development Program. The awards recognise women who have been pivotal in defusing conflict in their communities and this round of recipients ranged from parliamentarians to women who work in grassroots organisations advocating for peace. Suraiya falls into the second category and is famous for having developed and spearheaded the organisation Flower Aceh, the first women's organisation in the province. Flower Aceh was particularly active in supporting women and children during the vicissitudes of a thirty-year war of independence between Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) and the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI). Tensions flared until Boxing Day 2004, when Aceh was ravaged by a tsunami, which killed more than 130,000 Acehnese, and became an unexpected catalyst for peace. A peace agreement was signed, GAM was disarmed, and Flower Aceh's focus shifted.

OUR FIRST STOP, suggested by Pak Aceh, is between the airport and our hotel. We're on limited time, so leaving our gear in the car, we wander through a garden and along a pathway which runs beside several pagodas. On the pagodas are baskets filled with finger-worn Qur'ans. In a grassy rectangle to our right grow tiny yellow flowers. I assume the place is a memorial garden for tsunami victims, with its feature piece a sculpture of a blue-white wave. As I approach the wave, I feel a rash of unaccountable goosebumps. I try to imagine the tsunami: what it must have looked like, its colour, the destruction and misery too vast. A hot breeze detaches a few frangipanis, sends them spiralling to the grass. As I head back to the car park, I notice the sign.

Pak Aceh hasn't just taken us to a sculpture garden. He's taken us to one of Banda Aceh's mass graves. We're standing above a terraced garden of rotting sarongs and bones, above 46,718 bodies.

SURAIYA IS PETITE, pretty, and not a woman to be distracted by infatuations or dissipations: she has a mind like a blowtorch. As she shows us around her home, a spotless two-storey townhouse, she talks rapidly and I feel a mild surge of panic – worried my Indonesian won't be up to the interview. She takes us upstairs, where there are dustless rows of books, and as she talks, I become accustomed to her nuanced and passionate tone. She tells us she studied chemical engineering at university and during her degree she met other Acehnese women who were activists and feminists. She didn't marry until she was thirty-six because she knew that if she had a husband or children, then TNI or GAM were likely to threaten them. Back downstairs, there are recent honeymoon pictures of herself and her handsome, long-haired, guitar-strumming husband; they are framed by Prambanam, the Hindu temple complex in Central Java.

We set her up for filming on a white lattice bench against a white wall on her front porch. There's the occasional growl of a passing motorbike, the howl of a dog, but it's quiet enough to shoot. She's unfazed by the camera, a natural. Compared to some of the situations she's been in, I imagine having a camera pointed at her is nothing. We learn a few days later from one of her colleagues that during the conflict she was lined up and had a pistol pointed at her head.

But she doesn't talk to us about that. Instead, she tells us about Flower Aceh, which she established in 1989. 'Our focus at Flower was the rights of victims of violence, especially women who had been sexually assaulted. We did things like trauma healing and advocacy, and also ran economic development programs,' she says.

The Flower Aceh office was often filled with mattresses. Women would come from surrounding villages under the guise of visiting relatives in the city. If members of the military or GAM had approached them, and they'd admitted that they were attending training in the capital, then they would have been in grave danger.

'In the villages, it wasn't safe. And if we'd run the training in a hotel [in the city] the women wouldn't have been comfortable. So we had a big room at the office, and a relaxed atmosphere, and at night, it was always busy. Many of the women brought babies and small children, and there were staff from Flower who looked after and played with the children. In fact, some of the women even invited their husbands, so their husbands also knew what they were doing,' Suraiya says.

On occasion, Flower Aceh ran outreach workshops in the villages and Suraiya tells us the place that made the deepest impact on her was Geumpang, an area that became poverty stricken because the women were too scared to tend their crops, too scared to harvest their rice for fear of being raped. 'It's an area that's soooofertile,' she says, 'and very beautiful, but…there came a point where the people could only eat the middle of the banana stems, the soft part. They cooked them, and ate them, because they were starving.'

She first visited the area at the request of a community organisation. The director told her there would be nine women, all victims of rape, who would be waiting to meet her. Instead she was met by thirty-five women. There was only one man left in the village. 'He was an older man,' Suraiya says, 'who wasn't able to move much because he'd been tortured. At first I thought all the other men must have died, but it turned out that this wasn't the case. Some of the men were combatants, and weren't in the area, and some had simply fled the village because it wasn't safe…so the ones who were left to take care of things were the women.'

The women had young hands and old faces, and from morning until late afternoon they told her their stories. One of the women had a husband who was a member of GAM, hiding and fighting in the mountains. She was forced by the military to walk to the mountains every afternoon to look for him. And every afternoon, when she reported back to the military post after another fruitless search, she was tortured. One afternoon, she was physically abused so badly that the soldiers broke her back.

'What hurt her the most,' Suraiya says, 'was that they made her take off all her clothing, and forced her to walk home without a single piece of clothing on. She tried to talk to a young Acehnese man who was with the military, "My child, please give me a piece of cloth. Aren't you ashamed? I am a mother!" And he replied, crying, "I'm sorry, but I can't help you, mother. It's an order"…'

Suraiya breaks off, looks away from the camera, presses her palms to her eyes.

Imagine the shame! This is Aceh, and even myself, a bule, am dressed in appropriate busana, Muslim clothing, with a dark blue headscarf and sleeves to the wrist.

As the woman was telling her story, the other women from her village moved closer and took her hands. The night after it happened, they had also come to her aid, creeping to her home with food and to nurse her, at risk of rape and torture and humiliation themselves.

'For me, what was interesting in meeting these women and listening to them tell their stories and of their suffering was…watching as they held each others hands and as they said, "I'll help you, I'll heal you". Truly, before this, I had never encountered the concept of this sort of recovery or group counseling…but these women were already doing it, in extraordinary, threatening circumstances this solidarity between women wasn't lost,' Suraiya stops.

Beyond the porch, the first drops of rain for months begins to fall.

I GOT A sense of this solidarity in Suraiya's own circle. The following afternoon, we meet one of her close friends, Ibu Haji Iliza Sa'aduddin Djamal, the Deputy Mayor of Aceh. Iliza's office is carpeted, her desk is polished and her presentation is immaculate – she's a buxom, brusque woman with a throng of assistants. She has great respect for Suraiya. 'We hope that many girls will be born who grow up to be like Suraiya, women who age without exhaustion, women who are strong in any situation…' Iliza's voice begins to choke, but she continues, 'Suraiya was a witness. She was a witness who saw the pain of women caught in this conflict and she continued to make a stand. For long enough, women in Aceh have been tortured.'

We're on the top storey of the local government offices and beyond the windows, all the way to a spine of distant volcanoes, the rain crashes.

Iliza reaches for a tissue with sparkling fingers and dabs the skin beneath her eyes. She is one of only a very few women in government in Aceh. Sobbing, she continues, 'With hard work, with tears, with all these limitations, women in Aceh continue to struggle…so that we're no longer marginalised, so that we can have equality.'

ON SURAIYA'S PORCH the rain has stopped and the temperature rockets.

According to Suraiya, just because the war is now over, it doesn't mean that Flower Aceh's work has finished. Suraiya tells us that one of the biggest issues is getting justice for women who were victims of rape during the war. There's the trauma, and the blizzard of shame these women brave to even report their experiences; but the system itself is also stacked against them. On 15 August 2005, the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed. Significantly, no women were involved in the Helsinki talks on either side of the negotiations. The MoU gives a right for compensation to 'all civilians who have suffered a demonstrable loss' in the conflict – so people whose homes had been burnt, or women whose husbands had died, were eligible. Victims of rape, however, were not, and even the designation 'victim', in terms outlined by the Badan Reintegrasi-Damai Aceh (The Aceh Peace and Reintegration Agency), referred only to people who suffered permanent disabilities.

'But for women who were victims of rape – nothing,' Suraiya says. 'Because rape can't be proven physically. This means, that up to this day, our country has not confessed about this. If you speak with the decision makers there are those among them who say, "Enough. It's in the past. Don't bring it to life again, we already have peace…" Yes, today, God willing, we no longer experience this constant threat and we can move on, but how can they?'

FLO AND I are stonewalled by silence a few days later at the Badan Pemberdayaan Perempuan dan Perlindungan Anak (Agency for Women's Empowerment and the Protection of Children). We'd been told they had statistics on women in Aceh, specifically, the precise number of women raped by TNI and GAM. Suraiya had been unable to provide the numbers of women Flower Aceh had worked with, because all their data had been destroyed in the tsunami.

The minute we step through the doors, eyes lock suspiciously on Flo's camera bag and tripod. We're not reporters, we quickly assure security, we're just looking for some information. We're told to wait. We wait. It's just after lunch. Women come into the office, slipping out of their shoes. Every staff member in the room we wait in is female. On the walls, there are posters boldly declaring the steps you need to take if you're a victim of domestic violence. On the table, there's cake. We're offered a slice each, but politely decline. Finally we're called to a small office where we're met by a man.

Flo and I share a look.

With appropriate circumlocution and a soft voice I explain what we're after, ask if he can help.

'Do you have a letter?' he asks.

'A what? What kind of letter?'

'A letter from your organisation stating your request?'

'No, no we haven't brought a letter.'

'Ahh well,' he spreads his hands and a small smile of relief curls his lips. 'I'm afraid there's nothing I can do then.'

I think of Suraiya's mocking iteration, 'Enough. It's in the past. Don't bring it to life again, we already have peace.'

Peace, and silence, I think. Silence and shame.

SURAIYA TELLS US about the children.

One day, maybe in 1999 when she was still director of Flower Aceh and hadn't moved over to her new position with LOGICA 2 (Local Governance Innovations for Communities in Aceh), an AusAID initiative, a father brought four children to the office and left them there. 'If they stay in the village they are not safe,' he told Suraiya. 'GAM are in the process of recruiting and because we men are too old to fight, they want to take our children up into the mountains.' Suraiya says she and the other staff at Flower Aceh were bewildered. What on earth were they to do with children? Finally they had a meeting and agreed to put the kids into an Islamic boarding school, funded from their own pay packets. After a while, a church group from Holland also offered to put thirty children through six years of high school. Every Sunday, Flower Aceh hosted healing sessions for the children. 'Many children heard the screams of their fathers burning alive, or saw their fathers beaten in front of their eyes,' Suraiya says. 'Many of the children hated the sound of the ocean because it reminded them of the sound of the war, of the crack of the guns.'

AFTER THIRTY YEARS of civil war the guns were finally quiet. GAM and TNI soldiers worked side by side to pull dead bodies from the mud left in the wake of the tsunami. Most of the bodies were women.

There's a site in the city where a hulk of a 2600-tonne ship sits rusting five kilometres inland, dragged there by the force of the tsunami. Flo and I visit the site for some footage. There's a steady stream of visitors. On the breezy roof of the vessel young Acehnese laugh, snap photos with their mobile phones, tuck into parcels of brown rice and chicken with deft fingers. From the roof of the ship we can see the ocean, a distant silver lick of water. It's unfathomable, that the ocean could have dumped the ship here. Back in the car park, a woman tugs at my sleeve and with pressing, shameless eyes says she's janda, janda, widowed. Can I help her? We've just interviewed the woman's friend. The woman's friend says when the tsunami hit her son was coming back to Banda Aceh from Medan. A lot of young men go to Medan on the weekends. It's a wild city by Acehnese standards: you can get on the arak or the Bintang beers, maybe find a pretty girl and cut loose.

The woman's son went missing on the road home. He's still missing. She waits for him.

Less than a hundred metres from the car park there's a display of graphic photos depicting blood and mud and the occasional rib bone. There's a photo of a young woman; her small breasts are exposed and her face has slipped off, leaving a black oval. There are the rictuses of children splitting the mud. I have to turn away.

Suraiya tells us that when Flower Aceh conducted research on tsunami survivors directly after the event she was completely shocked by the numbers. Research across eight camps revealed the number of male survivors was at least double the number of females.

At Mesjid Alfaizin (Lampeuneurut) there were 698 men but only 210 women. At TVRI there were 881 men and only 189 women. From data gathered at the sub-district Lampuuk from across five villages that initially had a population of five and a half thousand, there were 750 survivors. Only forty were women.

'Why?' I ask Suraiya. 'Why is the number of women so, so low?'

'When the earthquake hit, many of the men went out to have a look at what had fallen down. They got on the motorbike and left. The women stayed in the homes…'

When the tsunami came, many of the women didn't run, at least not straight away. 'Although they wanted to run, they had to grab their headscarves first,' Suraiya says. 'And the women didn't just look after themselves, but they had to make sure their children were safe, or assist their elderly mothers… There were cultural factors that influenced the numbers.'

I become aware of these cultural factors a few days later in a coffee shop. It's Pak Aceh's local and serves up a sugary robusta, enough to perk me up for an afternoon of filming and Flo up until 2 am, although I suspect she would have stayed up that late anyway – she's finishing off the design of a CD cover for a group of rising Indonesian rock stars. The cafe is spacious and decked out with plastic tables. I nudge aside an upturned ashtray with a painted toe.

'We're pretty much the only chicks,' says Flo, and she's right.

It's about two in the afternoon and the tables are full of men, slowly grinding down their cigarettes, languidly stirring their coffees, talking about the unseasonable burst of rain. The only other woman in the whole building whisks change behind the till.

IT'S BEEN EIGHT years now since the tsunami, and the cultural factors that define and perhaps confine the role of women are being buttressed by increasingly rigid religious beliefs. Historically, Aceh has always been more conservative than other parts of Indonesia. It was the first place in Indonesia to embrace Islam, and for hundreds of years there was a confluence of cultures in the province – Indonesian, Malay, Persian, Indian and Arabic. However, since the MoU was signed, there's been a strengthening in the presence and practice of Sharia, and with it comes public canings for men and women accused of adultery, and public shamings by the Shariapolice of women wearing jeans instead of skirts. This is something that deeply concerns Suraiya.

Suraiya says in front of her local mosque there are pictures of two women. 'The first is like me, she's wearing a headscarf, a long-sleeved shirt and pants. The second is a woman in a long skirt and this is indicated as the correct way to dress.'

In October 2009, The Jakarta Post reported a move by the government in West Aceh to prohibit women from wearing trousers. Suraiya says people should be worrying about social issues, not clothing. 'Why don't we make Aceh an example of a place where people live under Islam and there is no corruption? Or a place where you don't have to worry about getting your bag stolen when you're at the mosque, because we have zero crime?… Honestly, it [Sharia] is an interpretation of Islam that's too narrow. Because it's only the understanding of one school of thought. Who has the right to decide that this is better? The problem is, through the process of implementation, it's women who are becoming a target.'

In January 2013, reports from various news sources indicated that the local government in Lhokseumawe, a city in northern Aceh, planned to introduce a by-law banning women from straddling motorbikes. Women will be forced to ride sidesaddle to hide their curves. It remains to be seen whether this effectively means women in Lhokseumawe will also no longer be allowed to drive motorbikes.

Khairani Arifin (Rani) shares Suraiya's despair at the introduction of elements of Sharia law in public life. Rani is one of Suraiya's oldest friends – the girls lived together when they were at university, and now work together at LOGICA 2. She's also a professor of law and economics, responsible for co-authoring a charter on women's rights – the first of its kind in the Islamic world – and is an ardent campaigner for human rights. We meet at the Flower Aceh office and Rani receives us gracefully. She's dressed in sombre colours and speaks very softly. Her eyes have gravity, a pensiveness that suggests a rich and thoughtful inner life. According to Rani, the biggest challenge for Acehnese women in the future is in being able to rise to positions of leadership. 'The issue of women becoming leaders is always tied up with women's rights, which are always tied up with religion, with Sharia Islam. One of the problems is that religion becomes a justification as to why women can't become leaders – why women can't become involved in public life. There are plenty of passages in the Qur'an that support an active role of women, but these are always forgotten.'

PERHAPS WHAT'S ALSO forgotten is that historically women in Aceh have played active roles – especially militant roles – within the framework of Islam. On our last afternoon, Pak Aceh takes us to Tjoet Nja' Dhien's wooden house. The caretaker tells me the only authentic thing left in the structure is the well. Its wall was made particularly high, to deter the Dutch from throwing poison into it. As I follow the caretaker along the corridors I'm beside myself with excitement – a few months before I watched, spellbound, the 1988 biographical film Tjoet Nja' Dhien, starring Christine Hakim. Tjoet Nja' Dhien (1850-1908) swore she'd take revenge on the Dutch colonisers after her first husband was murdered. She fought alongside her second husband until he died in 1899, when she then took over as general, directing Acehnese guerilla fighters against the Dutch until blindness and old age forced her to capitulate. She wasn't the first woman of military persuasion in Aceh.

Records indicate there was another woman in the 1500s, a royal girl called Keumalahayati, who became an admiral in the navy and a commander of an army of widows called Inong Balee. In the recent conflict against the Indonesian government, up to two thousand women formed a modern Inong Balee – women combatants who were part of GAM.

Sitting under the replica house in the shade, watching the red scuttle of Pak Aceh's cigarette end, I think about Cut Meutia (1870-1910) and the less well-known warriors of the early 1900s, Pocut Baren, Pocut Meurah Intan, Pocut Meuligo. And then about Iliza, Rani and Suraiya, three women who are game changers, who perhaps will represent a shift in Aceh's heroines as they're advocating for peacebuilding, for collaborative and inclusive strategies rather than military solutions.

As I wait for Flo to clatter back down the stairs with the tripod and camera (later I'll watch milky shots of glass lanterns and lattice windows) I come to a difficult and personal realisation. I always thought Islam and feminism were incompatible. Six months of Islamic studies in Bandung didn't shift my opinion. But over the last few days I've come to understand that I'm wrong, that Islam is not synonymous with subservience to men, that women can be articulate, passionate, selfless and great champions of women's rights, of feminism, justice and equality, and still embrace Islam.

OUR INTERVIEW WITH Suraiya is winding up. 'You got any last questions Flo?' I ask.

'One more,' says Flo. 'Do you have any advice for young women? Young women who might want to do what you're doing, or who look up to you? Young Acehnese women?'

'Never give up,' says Suraiya in English, 'never give up.'

ON OUR LAST evening, we go to the ocean. Torpid grey clouds lock to the horizon. There's a low seabreak designed to stall another tsunami. I sink into a chair. All along the waterfront are tiny stalls selling iced coconut drinks and barbequed corn. There's the acrid smell of burning coconut husks.

I reflect on something my boss had said before I flew out. I had been talking about the issues we could frame the profile of Suraiya around: civil war, rape, breathtaking brutality of various Indonesian governments. She said, 'Stop there.'

'Stop, stop, stop. There's to be nothing in this that's anti-government. Our foothold in Indonesia is tenuous as is. We don't have programs in Aceh anymore. We have to tread carefully,' she said.

There was a culture of treading carefully directly after the tsunami. In the not-for-profit development sector you didn't mention the war, you didn't and still don't do anything that will piss off the Indonesian Government. With this in mind, I wonder if the international recognition Suraiya will gain by receiving an N-Peace Award will be enough to rally support from the international community to help women in Aceh see the deliverance of justice for perpetrators of crimes and to assist them to mobilise against their biggest challenge yet: the spectre of Sharia. And if it's not, if we continue to tiptoe around the Indonesian Government, if another generation of women in Aceh are left to face yet another time of trauma alone, will their solidarity be enough?

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