In Indonesia’s Aceh, Islamic Sharia Law Is Applied Harshly And Hypocritically

More so than elsewhere in Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic nation, the province of Aceh adheres to the strict precepts of Sharia law. If caught by the religious police, residents face public flogging and prison. Still, the rich have ways ar

Banda Aceh, Indonesia
Banda Aceh, Indonesia
Anne-Fleur Delaistre

ACEH -- The sunset along the coast makes this a particularly romantic spot for dozens of couples sitting intertwined on the rocks along the beach. But these young people are here illegally.

In Aceh, an Indonesia province on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, their behavior is vigorously punished by Islamic law. For their crime, called khalwat, an unmarried man and woman risk nine lashes with a stick. If the religious police surprise one of these couples in flagrante, officers will demand the offenders get married on the spot.

Sharia law pertaining to family rights has been in place in all of Indonesia since 1991, but Aceh is a separate case. It has been home to Muslims since the 13th century and, in 2001, Islamic law was appended to the penal code.

Sharia is a series of principles that guide Muslims in their daily lives by regulating private life. It also provides punishments for infractions of the penal code. In Aceh, contrary to the rest of Indonesia, Sharia also calls for corporal punishment.

Aceh emerged a decade ago from nearly 30 years of civil war between the central government in Jakarta and independence fighters. "Sharia was born during the war," says Tamir, a representative of one of the only political parties calling for Sharia to be withdrawn.

"Jakarta wanted to placate the separatist tendencies by granting Sharia to our very pious region. But it was done out of desperation," he added. "The local male politicians accepted it as a way to pressure and exercise repression over the population, and residents stayed quiet in the vast silence after the war. They used the worst arguments to manipulate the people: fear and religion."

Regulating all aspects of life

Last year, Islamic tribunals sentenced 500 people, the majority for inappropriate contact between an unmarried man and woman. Among them was a married woman named Amel, who was suspected of too-close relations with a man in the village. The villagers contacted the Sharia police, and the two offenders were flogged in a public square in front of the village mosque.

"We even served sweets to the public – it was a form of entertainment. This Sharia, it's folklore," says Farabi, who is concerned about victims of Islamic law. A double punishment was handed down to Amel, who was presumed guilty and ostracized by her village.

Sharia law also forbids women from singing and dancing, which are judged to be overly amorous. "Sharia is very difficult for women to adhere to, as it applies to all areas of life: clothing, behavior in public, a way of being around men, a curfew at night," says Donna, the director of the Solidaritas Perempuan association. A believer as well as a fervent feminist, Donna does not wear the obligatory veil, despite numerous arrests and reprimands.

Residents of Aceh are reluctant to openly criticize Sharia. "You can't say you're against it because that would mean you are against religion," says a woman named Leila. After talking to people for a while, however, tongues start to loosen. "In elementary school, the veil has become obligatory since the Sharia was implemented, including for young girls," says a teacher who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear that the mild critique could invite repercussions.

"It is very discriminatory. Imagine all the women who work on the mountain slopes in the coffee fields with their obligatory long robes. These clothes are a source of accidents," said Khainan, 25, who admits to fearing God less than she fears the police. Her biggest worry is the shame of being beaten in front of his family in case of an infraction.

Fearing the police more than God

On Friday, noon spurs the call to prayer and the obligatory visit to the mosque. Appointments are cut short; everyone hurries on their scooters or in their trucks. Anyone happening to stroll by this holy place at this time will be punished. From a distance, one can distinguish the khaki uniforms of the religious police. The patrols of the Wilayatul Hisbah, a special police force, watch over the proceedings. They also track down drinkers and gamblers.

Cinemas have disappeared in Aceh for promoting intimate contact between the sexes. "Yes, but people can watch movies in the comfort of their homes with their wife or wives," deadpans the dean of the Islamic law faculty, in reference to the fact that polygamy is permitted by law.

Still, the region has opened up since the tsunami of December 2004. Hundreds of foreigners came to help a devastated population. Their freedoms and way of life helped to soften the application of Sharia. "The law is more tolerant today than 10 years ago, especially in the cities," says Ibu Nursiti, professor of Islamic law, pointing out the rare woman who is not veiled from the terrace of a cafe. "Some years ago, when a woman was not veiled, her head would be shaved."

Seven years after the catastrophe, NGOs and the foreigners they brought have left. The slight loosening of Quranic laws seems to have endured – except for in some remote rural areas – but the threat of radicalization still looms. Some Islamist parties wish for a law that more conforms with the precepts of the prophet.

"That is what parliament wanted in voting for an article that called for the amputation of the hand for rapists and the stoning to death of adulterous lovers," explains al-Yasa, the father of Sharia in Aceh. The text is no longer applicable today because the province's governor refused to sign it. "But if a more conservative governor is elected next February, he will," predicts Andra, a supporter of the liberal opposition party Golkar.

The population may dread the radicalization of Sharia, but above all it criticizes the unjust application of the religious law. "It is widely known that rich residents of Aceh drink alcohol and go to parties in Jakarta to meet women," says Oumati.

At least one claim can be verified: In the airplane that flies back to the capital on Friday evenings, the head coverings are removed, with beautifully coiffed women looking into pocket mirrors, powdering their faces.

Read more from Le Temps in French

Photo - indo_girl2010

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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