Police in the Indonesian province of Aceh arrested and publicly humiliated a group of about a dozen transgender women who work in hair salons last week. Gay and transgender people are often repressed in this conservative province ruled by Sharia Islamic law. However, our Observer said this abuse has reached shocking new levels.

According to the local police chief, this operation, which he claimed was meant to combat “mental illness”, was launched after local residents filed complaints, deploring what they called the “negative influence” that transgender people could have on children. The raids focused on ten different hair salons.


Photo published by the Aceh police.


Local police shared photos of the arrest. These images show transgender women lying on the ground, on their knees or having their hair cut. Three days after the arrest, the chief of police spoke with the BBC by telephone.

"We are holding them for three days to give them counselling and coaching,” he said. “It's going well and now they are all acting like real men."

According to police, the women would be detained for five days.


Photo published by the Aceh police.


However, our Observer’s version of events differs from that of the police. He’s a human rights lawyer who is in contact with Aceh-based NGOs that were able to meet with the women while they were in detention. He says that the women were also abused and humiliated while in police custody. For security reasons, he wishes to remain anonymous.

"They had to hold their penises in front of the police”

The local NGOs told me that there were local police officers, members of the religious police and government officials. They were cruel and inhuman towards the 12 people they arrested. They made them strip naked and then the police cut their hair and beat them, all in public.

According to the witnesses who were interviewed by my contacts, the women who were arrested were also abused while being detained. They were slapped, hit and insulted. They had to take urine tests to determine if they had taken drugs or not and blood tests to see if they had AIDS. They were forced to hold their penises in their hands in front of the police officers. Moreover, they weren’t able to see a lawyer while they were being detained.

The hair salon wasn’t a secret place. Everyone knew that it was owned and operated by transgender people.

In this tweet, the representative of the Indonesian branch of rights group Amnesty International shared a video of the arrest.


In Indonesia, the word used to describe transgender people is “waria”, which is a blend of the Indonesian words for “man” and “woman”.

The BBC reported that, while they were on the phone with the chief of police, he held up the phone to the detained women and asked them, “are you still waria now?”

“They replied quietly, sounding clearly under pressure, that they were not,” reported the BBC.

"It’s highly unlikely that these people will be able to return to their  jobs”

Our Observer continues:

There is no legal base for the actions that the police took. There is no law that allows for going after people or their business in such a manner.

This raid happened suddenly, with no warning. The local police have previously carried out operations against transgender people in Aceh. However, in the past, these operations only occurred after repeated pressure from authorities or the police on local leaders who would then pass the message on to the transgender people being targeted.


Photo posted by the Aceh police.
 

It’s very common for transgender people to work in hair salons here in Indonesia. It’s been like this since the 1970s, when transgender people started wearing make-up and doing their hair.

In this situation, it’s highly unlikely that these people will be able to return to their jobs. The police could target them again. Local residents could also bother them. After what just happened, there’s a risk that the population will think of transgender people as immoral and as sinners and won’t want any contact with them, or even to see them. That’s been the case for other transgender people in the past. Those with enough money will probably try to move.


Sharia law and corporal punishment

Homosexuality and sexual relations between people of the same gender aren’t banned in Indonesia. But Aceh province, located in the northern part of the island of Sumatra, is governed by sharia law. Aceh gained a special degree of autonomy from the Indonesian government in 2001 after years of separatist insurrection.

Corporal punishment is legal under sharia law and it is often used to punish members of the LGBTQ community. In May 2017, two men were each caned 83 times after they were discovered in bed together by a local fundamentalist militia.

According to Amnesty International, caning is also given as punishment for people who engage in the sale of alcohol, consensual sexual relationships outside of marriage or who spent time alone with a person of the opposite sex other than their spouse or a member of their family. Aside from Brunei, Aceh is the only place in south-east Asia to apply sharia law.

Article written with
Corentin Bainier

Corentin Bainier , Journalist