On the street in Banda Aceh

During the past eleven years, researcher Marjaana Jauhola has followed life in the capital of Aceh province in Indonesia.

The city of Banda Aceh has experienced a decade of reconstruction. It has had to repair both the damage from the tsunami that devastated much of Indonesia and the destruction caused by nearly 30 years of armed conflict. The city has now regained its pre-tsunami size, and the middle class is enjoying an improving standard of living, some of them even prosperity.

On the other hand, lost homes, signs of violence, and grief are still visible and audible on the streets of Banda Aceh. “The people are surrounded by nationalism, political violence and increasing religious fervour,” describes Marjaana Jauhola, university lecturer of development studies and researcher of feminist global policy.

Banda Aceh is the capital of Aceh, a special territory of Indonesia with a population roughly the same as that of Finland and located at the northern end of the island of Sumatra. Aceh rose to the headlines in Finland in 2004 and 2005, first because of the tsunami, and then to celebrate the peace agreement which President Martti Ahtisaari helped broker.


The peace agreement, drafted with support from the Crisis Management Initiative established by President Ahtisaari, brought an end to protracted fighting between the Free Aceh Movement and the central government of Indonesia. The crisis was sparked by disputes over Aceh’s independence and the use of the natural resources in the area. The people of Aceh think that Indonesia had been stealing their oil and natural gas since the 1970s.

The Aceh agreement was finalised in Finland, and the signing ceremony counts as a high point in our tradition of peace brokering. Armed conflicts have decreased in the area, disarmament has been successful, and former combatants have found civilian occupations.

But the peace agreement is just the beginning. The human rights court, promised in the agreement, has not materialised, and the truth commission established in 2015 is only getting started.

Jauhola points out that the peace process should be analysed as a learning opportunity and from a critical perspective. “I’ve been constructing an image of what the price of peace was particularly for people who are not in the elite.”


In Jauhola’s interviews Professor Eka Srimulyani from the State Islamic University Ar-Raniry, and Donna Swita from the Women’s Solidarity for Human Rights organisation, pointed to significant groups and organisations which were excluded from the negotiations. Even the movement which demanded a referendum on the independence of Aceh only had a representative in the process for part of the time.

Jauhola intended to write her doctoral dissertation on the formal peace process, but there was insufficient material for a feminist study. Representatives from Aceh’s women’s organisations were not invited, and the results from the women’s peace conference organised in Banda Aceh were not recognised in the main negotiations.

The agreement makes no mention of gender equality or women’s rights.  “Gender quotas and the opportunities for women to enter leadership positions were left out of the official peace process, to be negotiated elsewhere,” says Jauhola.

However, when the legislative impact of the 2005 peace agreement was discussed in the Indonesian parliament the following year, the gender advocacy in the area was in its hype. International aid organisations supported the demands of local female researchers and women’s organisations. The principle of non-discrimination was put down in writing, and governors and mayors were obliged to promote gender equality.


Aceh is very religious. In the early 8th century it was the entry point through which Islam spread to Southeast Asia, and it continues to be the most intensely Muslim area in Indonesia, an enclave of strict Sunni Islam in the world’s fourth most populous country.

After the official reconstruction aid ended, the work for human rights and equality continued in the 2010s under intense political pressure. According to Jauhola, the efforts have required diplomatic skills and discretion.  “In the view of local women’s advocates, the actions should be described specifically as aiming towards Islamic justice and equality.”

Mentioning feminism makes things more difficult. Such activism is often decried as western propaganda – much like in Putin’s Russia.


The peace agreement strengthened Aceh’s autonomy, so the territory is free to make its own laws.

 “Honour and the ‘Aceh identity’ are used as weapons in the fight for political power in the new system, and they have been used against women and minorities,” Jauhola explains.

This means difficulties for religious, ethnic, sexual and gender minorities. Homosexuality is punishable by caning. Fabricated accusations of sexual deviance or heresy are also used to blackmail people. The new Islamic criminal code leaves victims of rape vulnerable to accusations of fornication.

 “NGOs have tried to oppose the new legislation. However, the Supreme Court of Indonesia believes that such local laws do not pose a constitutional problem.”


Money is one of the more difficult issues. The tsunami killed 170,000 people in Aceh, and damaged 500,000 of their homes. Decades of fighting have meant the death of thousands of fathers and husbands, and also women who joined the troops.

Consequently, Aceh’s economy lags behind the rest of Indonesia, and the poverty rate is several percentage points higher than that of the country in general. There are jarring discrepancies even within Aceh: the difference between poverty in the cities and rural areas is significant, even greater than the gap between Aceh and the rest of Indonesia.

 “The documentary films that are a part of my research show time and time again what poverty means. People have to constantly think about where to find income. They miss meals, or eat rice with chili sauce and nothing more.”

However, the poverty rate has fallen by nearly half since the peace agreement, and the number of poor in the general population has decreased to 16%, down almost a third.


In addition to poverty, Aceh’s people are exhausted by corruption. A special budget was agreed in the peace negotiations, and the locals dreamed of improved education and health care. These dreams have since dissipated, and there are ongoing legal cases regarding the misuse of budget funds.

Jauhola’s research material includes a biographical documentary about a former fighter, who yearns for the decades of the conflict, because they meant clear hierarchies and goals. This man, who now works as a sufi healer and runs a small café to help make a living, is afraid that his home and business which are on the edge of an empty lot will be demolished to make way for new office buildings.

He says that the original goals of the fight – eradicating poverty and establishing a fair economic system – were not achieved. Former foot soldiers struggle to make ends meet, while many of their commanders are part of the new elite, accumulating profits from lucrative business deals.


The peace agreement brought about a complete overhaul of the way profits from natural resources are distributed. In addition to gas and oil, a source of dispute for decades, the people of Aceh now have to consider the untapped minerals as well as palm oil, which is in high demand on the western market.

Illegal clearing is shrinking the tropical rainforest in Gunung Leuser National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and wildfires from broadcast burning to clear new land often spread dark smog in the skies of Southeast Asia.

 “There are many concurrent types of insecurity: physical, political and economic, environmental, and concerns for the future,” says Marjaana Jauhola.  “I’ve been thinking whether it would be possible for a peace agreement to enable sustainable development, or even demand it.”

In her interviews with Jauhola, women’s rights activist Donna Swita says that questions surrounding natural resources and education are intentionally obscured under moral panic. Moralising is rife: the discussion will focus on the “protection” of women when politicians want to be able to make decisions on the economy and society without being noticed and without negotiating with others.

 “The cultural shift relating to rapid urbanisation worries traditionalists and boosts conservative voices. It’s easy to accuse anyone asking difficult questions of being irreligious.”


Aceh’s Islamic law deters investors, and wastes the resources of women. However, Marjaana Jauhola points out that few people in Aceh feel like they are paralysed by traditional religion. Quite the contrary, religion can be a powerful resource.

 “The unique history of the area as the ‘verandah of Mecca’, the first Muslim port in Southeast Asia, is an integral part of the Aceh identity.”

Some consider sharia a balancing force against unbridled capitalism, and use it to justify nature conservation. Others turn religious culture into business ideas. The most rapidly growing branch of business in Aceh is tourism, and particularly “halal tourism”, which is a Muslim-friendly option for typical beach vacations.

The people of Aceh see the era of the sultanate before Indonesian rule as a utopia. Not even centuries of Dutch colonialism are thought to have compromised Aceh’s independence.

 “Feminists are trying to use this nostalgia to highlight an 80-year period in the 17th century during which the Aceh Sultanate was ruled by women – the sultanahs.”

This article was published in Finnish in the Yliopisto magazine in September 2017.

Researcher Marjaana Jauhola:  Publications.


A poet and humanitarian activist Zubaidah Djohar is one of the key performers in Marjaana Jauhola's documentary film production. On Wednesday, November 1st Djohar is visiting is The University of Helsinki’s Think Corner and welcomes you to witness her talk, poetry and dance.