Banda Aceh, Indonesia – Safitra knows she is being watched. At a table in Banda Aceh’s city park, she attracts the curious glances of everyone around her. A group of schoolgirls point and whisper and the man who serves coconut water gawps at her, confused.
As a transsexual activist in Aceh – Indonesia’s most conservative province – Safitra has grown a thick skin to taunts and stares, but lately it is a new type of unwanted attention that concerns her: police surveillance.
Last month, Aceh’s new Islamic Criminal Code, or Qanun Jinayat, came into effect – mandating public floggings for anyone engaged in same-sex relations and sex outside marriage.
Safitra’s real name has been not been used, along with others quoted in this story to protect them from reprisals.
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While Safitra identifies and dresses as a woman, she is still legally a man and could be punished with 100 lashes if she is “caught” having sex.
Human rights groups have voiced concern at the new code, which will also apply to non-Muslims and foreigners, protesting that it is in breach of Indonesia’s constitution and violates international human rights treaties that Indonesia has signed.
A judicial review has been filed against the new bylaw, but there are doubts over whether it will be overturned – a move that would aggravate Aceh’s semi-autonomous government and Indonesia’s powerful Islamic lobby.
Aceh is the only Indonesian province permitted to implement Islamic law – a special privilege brokered as part of a peace deal that ended a 29-year separatist war in 2005.
Since the implementation of this latest round of religious bylaws, Safitra and the local LGBT rights organisation for which she advocates, Violet Grey, have become obvious targets for the authorities’ surveillance.
“People are spying on us,” she said. “The sharia police pass by our office regularly, and there are people hanging around outside that we’ve never seen before.”
Since the code’s implementation last month Violet Grey members are scared even to meet at their office.
“No one’s really sure what they can accuse us of for assembling together, but we don’t know want to find out,” said Agus, a gay man and fellow Violet Grey activist.
No one has yet been caned for having gay sex, but Safitra is worried it will only be a matter of time.
Carried out after Friday prayers, public floggings have become a grim form of community entertainment in Aceh since they began in 2005.
Two days after Safitra’s interview with Al Jazeera, three men were caned at nearby Teungku di Anjong mosque for gambling on a cockfight.
Before the event, the local imam warned the spectators not to revel in the spectacle.
“What if it’s you up here being whipped one day?” he said. But his exhortations did little to stem the taunts and jeers levelled at the gamblers as they were led up on to the stage.
The lashes, administered by a hooded policeman known as the algojo, are not as brutal as those witnessed at floggings in Iran or Saudi Arabia. In Aceh, the algojo is only permitted to raise his cane to shoulder height. But rather than intense physical pain, it is the humiliation in front of a baying crowd that is feared most.
“I’m not physically scared of the punishments,” Safitra said. “But the embarrassment it would bring to my family would be awful. I never go to see the canings, I don’t want to have any part in it.”
In defence of the punishments, the authorities have stressed that the brand of Islamic law enforced in Aceh is moderate compared to that observed in parts of the Middle East. They also say the regulations only criminalise homosexual acts, and not homosexuality itself.
Syahrizal Abbas, director of Aceh’s Islamic Sharia agency, was cut off by bad phone reception when contacted by Al Jazeera, and failed to answer further calls.
However, in a recent interview with Public Radio International, he argued that the law was actually easier on homosexual couples than on heterosexual couples. He said while unmarried heterosexual couples were barred from being alone together – or even from holding hands in public – homosexual couples could sleep in the same bed as long as they did not engage in sex.
But countering Abbas’ argument, Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said this was not the case in practice.
Harsono points to the arrest of two teenage girls in Banda Aceh in October, accused of being lesbians, just before the implementation of the law.
“They were just sitting on a beach together. That’s all it took for them to be arrested,” he said. “After that they were interrogated for four days and three nights and then sent to rehabilitation for a week.”
Ostracised from their families and former friends, the girls have dropped out of school and were forced to leave home. One has received death threats from her brother.
While state persecution is one concern for Aceh’s LGBTs, the threat posed by abusive family members and Islamic vigilante groups is arguably worse.
Aceh’s LGBT community is mindful of a notorious incident involving a gay man named Hartoyo and his partner in 2007.
After being caught in bed by a mob that invaded their home, they were beaten and doused in sewage before being turned over to the police. The police then continued to abuse Hartoyo in custody, beating and urinating on him.
Similar “community punishments” continue to be dished out to LGBTs, but a climate of fear prevents many from speaking out.
The Islamic Defender’s Front is notorious for meting out violent reprisals to those they deem in breach of Islamic teachings.
“The worst thing that could happen to me is that I could be kidnapped or have my house burned down,” Safitra said.
Many LGBT people are unable to leave Aceh – reliant on networks of friends and family, and unsure if they will find work in a new city. Others, such as Safitra, are determined to challenge Aceh’s prejudice.