For the past few months Adel has felt relatively safe.
In February she fled her home in North Aceh after police detained and tortured her and 11 other transgendered women. Activists reckon more than two dozen transgendered women, known as waria here, are thought to have escaped to safer cities outside of Aceh, such as Jakarta, where Adel, 30, now lives.
Trouble is, many feel they have simply traded fear for loneliness and isolation. With few friends, family and a growing overall hostility toward lesbian gay and transgendered people, Adel says it’s all but impossible to get a job outside of sex work.
“The only possibility is an open booking job and I don’t like that,” she says, using the euphemism for prostitution.
“It’s too risky to my health.”
Now as the fasting month of Ramadan approaches, a deeply spiritual time for Muslim families, Adel says the isolation is all too much. Later this month she plans to go home, even if it means staying indoors most of the time.
“I actually want to stay in Jakarta but I have no job, no connection and the status of waria is getting tougher.”
Adel’s experience underscores just how vulnerable transgendered women are here. Limited contacts in the outside world make it tough to assimilate. Add to that a limited education and their options away from home narrow substantially. Many waria scarcely have a high school education because they are hounded out of their homes as teenagers.
Monica, Adel’s friend, also plans to return home for Ramadan, which begins on 15 May. But Monica says she will stay with friends because relations with her family are fraught. Publicity following the police raids embarrassed her family. Her older brother beat her.
“We haven’t fixed the relationship,” Monica says.
“Although Jakarta is hard I am only going back to make sure my parents are ok. And then I will come back to Jakarta. I am safer here.”
Aceh, an autonomous province, adopted a form of sharia law in 2014, which outlaws alcohol, adultery, homosexuality, pre-marital sex and gambling, and regulates what women can wear.
Last year a court sentenced two men to more than 80 strokes of the cane after they were convicted of homosexuality. That sentence was carried out in public, though the government has since moved floggings away from public view.
In late January the then- North Aceh police chief Untung Sangaji led his constables on raids of several salons rounding up a dozen transgendered women. The officers shaved their detainees’ heads and forced them to perform calisthenics as well as to shout repeatedly, as part of a makeshift syllabus to force the trans women to adopt more masculine traits.
Former North Aceh Police Chief Untung Sangaji
Mr Sangaji was transferred in early March following an investigation, which was ordered by his boss, national police chief Tito Karnavian. The move, which gained little attention outside Aceh, was part of the regular rotation, the national police said.
Even so, Aceh is far from safe, activists warn. About 35 transgendered women are still unable to go back to work in their salons including 15 in the town of Lhoksukon, in North Aceh where the raids took place, according to local activist group Putroe Sejati Aceh. Sharia police regularly patrol salons and seeking to detain and workers or their clients. Some 33 transgendered women fled Aceh following the raids.
Making matters worse regular civilians are increasingly all too willing to take matters into their own hands. Said one local activist who did not want to be identified: “The situation is still unstable.”