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Inspired by history

Women in Aceh now have more opportunities to play public and political roles, but they still face many obstacles

Eka Srimulyani

   Ready to lead. Many Acehnese women are willing to play public roles,
   but are Acehnese men ready to accept them?
   Eve Warburton

Many Acehnese men have difficulty in accepting women as leaders, even though women have played an important role historically. During the seventeenth century, when Aceh was at its zenith as a centre of trade and Islamic civilisation, the kingdom of Aceh Darussalam had several female rulers who were respected and admired. Famous religious scholars like Abdurrauf al-Singkili and Nuruddin Ar-Raniry publicly supported the rule of those queens. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some Acehnese women continued to hold leadership positions, even as local leaders or uleebalang (hereditary chiefs). One of the most famous leaders of resistance to the Dutch colonialists, Cut Nyak Dhien, was a woman.

This situation seems to have changed since the early twentieth century. Now few women play a public or political leadership role, and many men believe that such a state of affairs is only natural and right. The new hostility to women playing leadership roles was dramatised recently, in late 2010, when a controversy in Bireuen, a district in northern Aceh, attracted worldwide attention. The speaker of the district legislature demanded that the bupati (district head) replace a female camat (subdistrict head) he had appointed in the Plimbang sub-district.

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