CIANJUR, Indonesia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Siti Hasanah's husband of 10 years left her for another woman, he refused to grant her a divorce.
Left with four children, Hasanah had no child support, no rights to shared assets and no documents to prove her status, which is crucial to benefit from government welfare programmes.
"I asked my husband for the papers but he just ignored me. He even mocked me, saying I should do it myself but doubting I could," Hasanah, 44, said.
At a loss, Hasanah turned to PEKKA, a grassroots organisation that had set up a mobile court for women just like her. Four years after her husband left, Hasanah got her divorce papers.
She now works for PEKKA in Cianjur, a mountain town in West Java a couple of hours drive from the capital Jakarta.
"I used to be just a housewife. Now I feel I can be more vocal and I'm more sensitive to women's issues," Hasanah said, sitting on the floor of the education centre she runs. "I feel empowered."
However, Hasanah and her colleagues are concerned that religious and social conservatism creeping across Indonesia will roll back the rights for which they have fought for years.
Activists say local governments have introduced more sharia-based laws controlling how women dress, behave and work - eroding women's rights over the past few years in the world's most populous Muslim country.
The central government has been slow to react at best and complicit at worst, activists say, despite the laws contravening Indonesia's constitution and the various United Nations conventions it has signed up to.
As Indonesians go to the polls on Wednesday, rights campaigners hope a new parliament and president will curb rising discrimination against women.
Enti Rostianti, another PEKKA member, said it took years for women to join the group that helps women breadwinners - often deterred by distrust in the community of PEKKA's work.
“They say we’re challenging men’s authority and women’s role is to be subservient," said Rostianti, who became the family's breadwinner when her husband fell ill.
Since it emerged in 1998 from three decades of dictatorship under President Suharto, Indonesia has been hailed as a model of tolerance and religious freedom.
The reality is more complex.
Take for example, the wearing of a veil of headscarf. In 2005, Hasanah and others activists fought off a local bylaw in Cianjur that made it comulsory for female civil servants to wear a veil, regardless of their religion.
The law is still on the books, though not enforced, activists say.
However, it is mandatory for civil servants to wear a headscarf in at least one in five regencies in Indonesia, according to Andreas Harsono, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Indonesia.
He cited figures from Komnas Perempuan, the national commission on violence against women, showing that as of 2013, there were 342 bylaws that directly or indirectly discriminate women, compared with 154 recorded in 2009.
In Gorontalo, a province in northern Sulawesi, women are banned from working as office administrators to prevent office affairs and in Aceh, female civil servants are required to attend Koranic classes instead of krida, a weekly exercise, Harsono said.
Other bylaws seek to restrict the hours women can go out at night, ostensibly to prevent prostitution, and bar them from being alone with men who are not blood relatives.
Meanwhile, a bill to eliminate discrimination against women languishes in parliament.
TURNING A BLIND EYE
Some analysts say the tightening of women's freedom is an inevitable result of an ambitious programme of decentralisation Indonesia embarked on after Suharto's fall, giving local political leaders the autonomy to draft and enact laws.
"In the beginning (these laws) were proposed mainly by fundamentalist Islamists. But then the parties, even the secular ones, eventually welcome them, because they see it’s a good strategy to gain votes," said Husein Muhammad, a commissioner at Komnas Perempuan.
"It’s about projecting a good image. The bylaws became rampant because the state turned a blind eye."
Human Rights Watch's Harsono, however, placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the outgoing president who has won praise as a reformist.
SBY, as he is known, systematically weakened the rights of women and religious minorities during his two terms of power by emphasising the idea of religious harmony, Harsono said.
Dewi Candraningrum, chief editor of women's magazine Jurnal Perempuan, called SBY "too ignorant and too indifferent" but also, that he was hampered by coalition politics.
"Remember that his presidency is a result of multiple parties bargaining for power — meaning he should accommodate the many wishes, faces and intolerance of parties (including those) that endorse conservative values," Candraningrum said.
REALITY OF POLITICS
Rights groups say Indonesia's government repealed more than 1,800 local regulations between 2002 and 2009 but they were related to economic activities.
None of the bylaws that discriminate against women have been revoked. Yet even if they are not enforced, like the headscarf regulation in Cianjur, they have the potential to criminalise women, activists say.
A new government may decide repealing them is too much of a political risk.
"Legally, it's easy to undo sharia-based legislation. You just need to change the law," said Jan Michiel Otto, an expert on sharia at Netherlands' Leiden University.
"But it's difficult politically. If you are accused of being un-Islamic, an apostate - it doesn't happen all the time but it could - then some fanatics could threaten to kill you.
"So instead of changing these sharia-based laws or repealing laws, you just don't enforce them. It's the same pattern you see everywhere, also in Indonesia," he said.
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