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12 Transgender Women Had Their Hair Forcibly Cut in Indonesian “Re-Education”

Police in Aceh province raided beauty salons and detained transgender women working there in a horrific human rights violation they dubbed “Operation Anti Moral Illness.”

Who is morally ill in this scenario: women simply going about their work and lives, or law enforcement officers who handcuffed their fellow Indonesians, cut off their hair, forced them to wear men’s clothing, and held them for three days while yelling at them to renounce their gender identity?

As the BBC reports, in Indonesia, transgender women are known as waria, “a word that combines the Indonesian words for men and women.” The country has a long and largely tolerant history of transgender culture, but there’s been a concerted attempt as of late to change that by religious authorities and opportunistic politicians, because there’s no better way to exert control over a populace than make people hate each other.

Local Police Chief Ahmad Untung Surianata told the BBC: “We are holding them for three days to give them counselling and coaching. It’s going well and now they are all acting like real men.”

While on the phone to the BBC, he yelled at the transgender women: “Are you still waria now?”

They replied quietly, sounding clearly under pressure, that they were not.

Amnesty International released a statement about the use of police power for this random, cruel, rights-violating attack. From Amnesty Indonesia’s Executive Director Usman Hamid:

The raids on beauty salons are just the latest example of the authorities arbitrarily targeting transgender people simply for who they are. Despite them having committed no crime, Aceh has become an increasingly hostile place for LGBTI people.

Cutting the hair of those arrested to ‘make them masculine’ and forcing them to dress like men are forms of public shaming and amount to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, in contravention of Indonesia’s international obligations. This is part of a long-standing pattern of harassing and discriminating against LGBTI people in the rewgion that must stop immediately.

The police’s so-called ‘re-education’ of transgender people is not only humiliating and inhumane, it is also unlawful and a clear breach of their human rights.

All those detained have since been released, which is a relief—but these raids were never about the individual people. They were an act of fear and violence perpetrated on a group of people. They were intended to send a message that no one is safe, and that you might find yourself snatched from your place of employment or residence and subject to all sorts of abusive behavior. I hope that the international media coverage of this event, and the attention of organizations like Amnesty, will give Aceh’s authorities pause the next time they decide to terrorize their own people.

(via The BBC, image: Ulet Ifansasti / Stringer / Getty, “Members of a boarding school, Al-Fatah, for transgender people known as ‘waria’ walk after Syawalan tradition”)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.