M Rosseno Aji, Jakarta – The democratic festivity is a bleak period for trans women in Aceh. They could potentially fall victim to a 'witch hunt' believed to boost the electability of local political elites. Sharia law has arguably annulled their rights as a citizen of the country.
This report is the first from a series of articles in collaboration between Koran Tempo and Jaring.id highlighting trans women in Indonesia's political whirlpool. This project is realized with the support of the Indonesian Association for Media Development (PPMN) and the Asia-Pacific Regional Support for Elections and Political Transitions (RESPECT).
On the searing heat day between the skyscrapers of Kebon Jeruk, West Jakarta, on Wednesday, August 10, Vanesa's flower pattern dress that she wore dangles to the ground, carrying dust and dirt in every step she took.
Once in a while, Vanesa greeted streetside traders selling beverages. Her smile always remained since stepping out of her boarding house. Whistles from men accompanied her steps. "It's always like that as long as they don't cause commotions. I have settled with the locals," says Vanesa.
Vanesa is a trans woman from Banda Aceh, specifically from the village of Gampong Ulee Lheue. She was outcasted from Aceh due to her gender change.
Her story started seven years back. Past midnight in July 2015, loud thumps came from her dormitory room door. In shock, she immediately opened the door and found more than 10 people dragging her out of her room. Without being able to say anything, Vanesa was beaten.
She remembered the perpetrators as local youths and the elderly. There were also apparatus. "I was beaten viciously," she recalled. Her tears dropped as she retold the harrowing experience.
Vanesa was paraded to a local security post all while the beating continued. Her hair was shaved bald, watered down with dirty water. The residents that gathered seemed to find the incident amusing with many recording it on their mobile phones. "That was the moment I cried. Where is the justice for us trans women?" Vanesa said.
Vanesa, whose birth name was Rizky, was also forced to pay a fine in the form of two goats. The animal is part of a local village cleansing ceremony. She was accused of tainting the environment. With the implementation of Islamic law in the region, Aceh does not acknowledge transgender people. "It's horrifying in Aceh. The Sharia is so strict. I was fined, and had to provide two goats and Rp500,000 in cash," she recalled.
Her nightmare did not end with the beating, fine, and outcast. She was also forced to sign a written statement that she could get a whip punishment if found to conduct activities in Aceh. "I was nearly depressed. I was born and raised in Aceh. Why do I have to move out," Vanesa said.
In the end, Vanesa left her birthplace and departed for Medan, where she worked at a bar selling alcoholic beverages. She then moved to Jakarta in 2018 to seek a better livelihood.
The feeling of nostalgia soared whenever she sees photos of her family on her cell phone. Vanessa still often communicates with her family via video calls on WhatsApp. One person she often contacts is her elder brother in Medan. "I miss him, but I hold it back. The last time I met my brother in person was in 2017," said Vanesa.
Her biggest dream is to return to Banda Aceh. Vanessa yearns to visit her father, first mother, and stepsister's graves. All three died in the 2004 tsunami. At that time, Rizky, 7 years old, was in Medan. From the television, he saw the ocean waves ravaging his hometown.
In addition to losing her family, Vanessa lost her voting rights. Even though she has an identity card and was notified to vote in her village, she was unable to cast a vote in the 2019 general election. It is very likely that the same thing will repeat in the general election and the 2024 presidential election. She worries about being whipped if she returns home. "So, I just abstained. I want to protect my family's good name too," said Vanesa.
Living faraway on another island, Vanesa has found herself as the "spokesperson" for thousands of trans women who still reside in Aceh. At the end of July, an activist for gender identity equality gave Vanesa's contact number and another trans woman who "fled." What they experienced in the past is the same as what Aceh trans women are experiencing now," said a source who remained to be anonymous. Unfortunately, another trans woman who fled the country overseas has yet to respond to requests for an interview until the publication of this article.
Since July, a collaborative team from Koran Tempo and Jaring.id communicated with a number of trans women residing in a number of regencies and cities in Aceh. For safety reasons, every one of them unanimously requested that their current living conditions should not be reported. "We will be hunted," said one of them.
Obtaining information openly about the condition of transgender women from academics and civil society groups in Aceh also proved difficult. They said, "This is a sensitive issue in Aceh." As one of them said that Qanun Jinayat is a rule that applies in the region.
The unfortunate news is that the threats toward trans women in Aceh are on the rise. Law enforcement against minority groups is actually considered positive by some community groups. "The number of raids spike prior to elections. Which are seeped with the interests of local politicians who intend to use it for their public image," said a source for the collaborative team.
What Vanesa went through seven years ago happened not long after the Aceh government imposed the Qanun Aceh No. 6/2014 regarding the Jinayat Law, or simply, the local law that oversees acts that are prohibited by Islamic law.
In fact, transgender issues are not specifically mentioned in the Qanun articles. However, this minority group is vulnerable to being targeted by the Liwath ban. Qanun defines it as the consented act of a man inserting his genitalia into the rectum of another man. There is also a prohibition on Musahaqah or the act of two or more women with mutual consent engaging with each other by rubbing each other's limbs to obtain sexual pleasure.
The punishment for the aforementioned acts is the same with perpetrators threatened with 100 lashes or a maximum fine of 1,000 grams of pure gold or maximum imprisonment of 100 months if found guilty.
Ever since the law was imposed, raids were common across Aceh. Vanesa is just one of the victims. The chairperson of Suara Kita, Hartoyo, had involved himself numerous times in evacuating the victims. He said that his advocacy group for LGBTQI finds it difficult to monitor the condition of trans women in the region. "Our friends over there were still able to work before the Qanun was enacted. They opened salons, coffee stalls, but now that is no longer the case," said Hartoyo on Thursday, September 1.
On that Thursday afternoon, Hartoyo showed a documentary produced in 2016 by Suara Kita titled "Bulu Mata" (eyelashes), which won the Citra Award as the best feature-length documentary in the 2017 Indonesian Film Festival. This documentary can now only be viewed under Suara Kita's permission for the sake of security.
The film, directed by filmmaker Tonny Trimarsanto, recorded the lives of seven transgender women in Bireun, Aceh, right before the enactment of the Qanun Jinayat. In one scene, a trans woman reminds her colleagues not to travel carelessly because of the potential for raids. The term "people of five steps" has become familiar among Acehnese trans women. This term describes the safe distances they can travel: five steps to the right, left, front, and back of their own homes. "It is indeed difficult, going outside is not that easy. They were all born and raised there," Hartoyo said in answering the question of why many trans women are adamant to stay in Aceh.
Irawan Abdullah, an Aceh House of Representatives legislator, claimed the sharia law does not discriminate against trans women, including in the context of general elections. They are granted their right to participate politically. He even said that the existence of the group is beneficial for eligible candidates who campaign for equal voting rights. "It can increase the votes," said the politician from the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).
According to Irawan, qanun was not introduced to restrict transgender people. The sharia law, he said, only bans someone from committing acts that are prohibited by religion, such as adultery and sexual behaviors that are deemed deviant. "So, these are what qanun probes. Not the individual, but their behavior," the politician explained.
The Aceh Independent Election Commission (KIP) stated that marginalized groups such as transgender women are a target for election dissemination as they are often marginalized in the five-year democratic process. "They are our subjects to ensure that their constitutional rights can be practiced," said the Head of the Aceh KIP Technical Division, Munawarsyah.
He ensured that everyone could exercise their right to vote as long as they meet the requirements set out in the Election Law, which oversees the eligibility requirements to be voters such as being 17 years old or married and owning an electronic ID card (e-KTP). The problem regarding the minority group, according to Munawarsyah, is that some of the trans women living in Aceh are migrants who have not changed their legal domicile.
Those who do not change their residency in their ID card or apply for a transfer to cast a vote, he explained, face the prospect of losing their right to vote. "We often convey to marginalized communities that changes in population administration are important for their voting rights and their right to be elected is guaranteed by the constitution," said Munawarsyah.
Social condition is also an aspect that makes trans women uncomfortable in exercising their right to vote. For example, being the center of attention at a polling station. "Socio-religious conditions also cannot be ruled out," he said. "This group has not been accepted by the Acehnese people."
Munawarsyah believes that the sense of rejection is not embedded in the sharia rules. The Jinayat Qanun regulations, he said, actually protect transgender women from sexual harassment and homosexual or bisexual behavior. The sharia regulation places men as men and so do women.
What must also be understood, he added, is that each region has regulations that are agreed upon by the general public. Regulations can be made accordingly to certain cultural or religious values. The Qanun Jinayat applies Islamic sharia principles. One rule, he said, is that it is obligatory for Muslim men to wear clothes that cover their genitals (aurat) – between the waist and knees.
The executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia, Usman Hamid, said the social and political discrimination experienced by transgender women in Aceh reflected the "tip of the iceberg" phenomenon of the depth of obstacles faced by transgender women in Indonesia. "Especially in terms of obtaining their human rights," he said.
One of the most fundamental aspects which should not be reduced by the state under any circumstances, said Usman, is the right to be recognized as a person before the law and government. He lamented that it is unfortunate that some local governments still have discriminatory policies and practices that hinder transgender women in their socio-political life.
Usman argued that as citizens, the transgender group has universal, constitutional, and legal rights to freely choose. They even have the right to run in general elections, despite their choice of gender. "If this phenomenon is not stopped, it is tantamount to showing the government's failure to protect transgender women from degrading treatment as human beings."
Usman suggested that the Aceh government revise the Qanun Jinayat, which is considered to have discriminated against transgender and other minority groups. History teaches that Qanun is the elaboration of fundamental values in Islamic law. Namely the noble purposes of the formulation of a law (maqasid al-shariah) such as justice and equality. "If there is a qanun that brings inequality of rights and injustice, the qanun actually loses its meaning and purpose, which are justice and equal rights," he said.