YALA — Muslim clerics and the local police force in the southern province of Yala are teaming up to crack down on ‘inappropriate’ public display of affections among unmarried couples.
Violators face both civil and criminal punishments – unmarried couples caught in the act could be made to marry immediately by the Islamic authorities and then charged with public obscenities, which carries a prison term. It is still unclear what offenses fall under the ban, which is being enforced in one of Yala’s districts, but a senior cleric said they include a conversation between a man and a woman.
“We’re not preventing people from communicating or talking. But if they are talking, then there should be a third party,” Sutimat Mahamad, imam of the Yaha Central Mosque said Sunday. “If there is a third party, we will not get involved at all. But if they’re talking one-on-one, the police will arrest them.”
Sutimat said police have already apprehended a couple talking on a road overpass and brought them to the mosque for religious sermons that berate their actions.
“They were talking on the balcony there, just whispering between the two of them. We told them not to do it again,” the imam said.
An interview with imam Sutimat Mahamad.
The rule was implemented by the mosque in Dec. 2019. It states that unmarried men and women who “display actions of being a couple or adulterous acts, either in public or private spaces” would be punished by the police and the religious authorities in the district.
The offending couple would also be married at the local mosque, with their parents and local imam summoned first for a discussion, according to the order. The local police in Yaha would then be brought to prosecute the couple for sexual obscenity, which carries a maximum penalty of five to 20 years.
A committee member of the Yaha Mosque said restrictions on physical contact between unmarried couples is for their own good.
“Our objective is to teach youths to act within religious traditions and rules, far away from drugs, and decrease their risk from being led by those with bad intentions,” Anucha Waedayi said.
Yaha police station superintendent Col. Sayuti Kateh confirmed by phone on Monday that police were cooperating with religious leaders in the district to implement their rules, due to illegal activity by youths in the community.
“Teenagers have been gathering for unlawful purposes, taking drugs and drinking kratom. They got drunk and pulled out their knives. There was even a shooting at a gas station,” Sayuti said. “The religious leaders asked for our cooperation to push their rule. Since the rule was announced, teenagers have scattered and are hiding.”
‘It’s Really Not a Big Deal’
The peculiar law was first brought to the public’s attention by human rights activist Angkhana Neelapaijit, who said it puts young women in the district at risk by forcing them into undesirable marriages.
“Forced marriage to restore the honor of the family or community, or to deal with the sexual needs of the youths, is a worrisome situation since it puts the woman or child in a lifetime of pain,” Angkhana, who is a Muslim herself, wrote online Saturday.
But imam Sutimat of Yaha Mosque said that the rule was created because of complaints about behavior of young people in the community.
“Residents have been complaining that the young men and women, and teenagers are committing wrongful acts that make religious leaders and local leaders worried,” he said. “We will apply sharia first. If sharia does not work, then we will use the law.”
Sutimat said the rules only apply to Muslims, but if one of the couple’s involved is not Muslim then their parents will still be summoned for a discussion about marriage. In cases that “sexual acts” were committed, then the couple must marry, he said.
But Col. Sayuti of Yaha police station said no marriage took place under the new rule so far.
The Sheikhul Islam Office, which is recognized by the law as the national governing body of Muslims, has not intervened or condemned the restriction issued by Yaha Mosque. Sheikhul Islam Office secretary Sutham Boonmalert said local clerics have the right to issue orders tailored for their community.
“It’s really not a big deal,” Sutham said. “The rule isn’t even used in all of Yala. It’s made by and for a small community so they can have a framework for their children and grandchildren to abide by.”
“Their rules are made for their own community, and local religious leaders, soldiers, and police all agreed to it.”
He added, “It’s only related to religion in the fact that men and women mingling about like that is wrong according to religious rules.”
Yaha district is located in the north of Yala province. It has a population of about 63,455, most of them Muslims.