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.
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