In sharia-ruled Aceh, sexual minorities fear intolerance

Banda Aceh – As a transvestite in Indonesia’s devoutly Muslim province of Aceh, Fanny sometimes has to put up with harassment and social discrimination.

But after the local government issued a new set of Islamic laws regulating private morality in September, she fears worse things will happen.

“We fear that people will take the law into their own hands,” said Fanny, who is a leader of a semi-underground LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sex and transgender) group in Aceh.

In September, the provincial legislature approved an Islamic criminal code, known as qanun jinayat.

Under the law, due to take effect on October 10, 2015, sex out of wedlock and same-sex sexual acts are punishable by 100 lashes of the cane, or 100 months in prison.

The current laws ban gambling, alcohol and being alone with someone of the opposite sex while unmarried, but do not specifically regulate sexual acts.

Fanny, 31, said even before the new laws were passed, she and fellow transgenders had already experienced harassment and discrimination.

Health workers were often reluctant to serve her when she sought treatment in hospital and she had trouble opening a bank account, she said.

“They often give me a strange look or lecture about morality,” said Fanny, who wears a headscarf to conform to sharia requirements.

She said people like her had to deal with taunts from males and had very few job opportunities, forcing many of them to resort to working as hairdressers at salons.

But even as hairdressers, they are banned under sharia to serve women.

With the new laws, she and other members of the transexual and gay community had decided to lie low, she said.

“We have a dicussion among us and we agreed we should not go out at night very often, just once or twice every week,” Fanny said.

“Our strategy is not to be too visible to avoid trouble,” she said.

Gay rights activists say the new laws could be used as a pretext to harrass sexual minorities.

“Qanun jinayat is a nightmare for the LGBT community,” said Faisal Reza, an Acehnese gay rights activist who now lives in Jakarta.

“It can be interpreted as a license to target people whose sexual orientation is different from them,” he said.

Being a homosexual or transgender is not a crime under the law because only sexual acts can be prosecuted.

But Acehnese clerics often refer to the Biblical towns of Sodom and Gomorrah to denounce homosexuals.

Transvestites are generally tolerated in Aceh, even though they are often stigmatized as sex workers.

“The LGBT community is small in Aceh and as long as they don’t engage in illegal acts, no action will be taken against them,” said Munawar Djalil, the chief of the legal affairs department at the provincial Sharia Office.

Attacks on sexual minorities in Aceh have occurred in the past.

Last year, residents in Banda Aceh rounded up two teenage girls they believed to be lesbians after they spent time alone in a house.

The two were later released after being questioned briefly by police.

WP_20141111_024The once-rebellious Aceh has long been known as a staunchly Muslim region and is nicknamed “The Veranda of Mecca.”

The central government granted Aceh special autonomy in 2002 to mollify desires for independence, allowing the province to impose its version of sharia laws.

Jakarta and separatist rebels signed a peace pact in 2005, ending decades of conflict that killed 15,000 people, mostly civilians. The deal was spurred by the Indian Ocean tsunami a year earlier that killed more than 170,000 people in Aceh.

Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal, the mayor of Banda Aceh, said the Islamic law was needed to address what she calls a “moral tsunami.”

“Because of globalization, there has been a shift in behaviour among Acehnese youth, some kind of a moral tsunami,” said Illiza, the first female mayor of Banda Aceh.

“We are facing the problems of HIV/AIDS and drugs. This is a challenge for us because even one person with bad morals is a problem for society,” she said.

She said she was concerned that gays and lesbians were increasingly bold about their sexuality.

“They are very open and they are not ashamed, maybe because they are faithless,” she said.

But her government is ready to provide counseling for people like them, she said.

In Banda Aceh, the olive-uniformed religious police, known as Wilayatul Hisbah, patrol the streets in two shifts everyday.

They stop to reprimand unmarried couples being alone in parks and Muslim women who are not wearing the hijab head coverings.

During a routine patrol one afternoon, a group of six religious police was scolded by a woman who worked at a beauty parlor in Banda Aceh’s Pinayung market.

“Why do you keep bothering us?” the woman asked in a loud, angry voice.

“Do you think your mother owns this place? Get lost!” she said, to the awkward silence of the policemen. The officers left without getting out of their Toyota pickup truck.

Marwan Hasan, the leader of the group, the place had been caught serving male customers in the past.

“We don’t get that kind of treatment very often, but we have to be patient in dealing with people,” he said. “Maybe she’s upset because business is not doing well.”

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