BANDA ACEH, Indonesia – A handful of activists, artists and intellectuals risk living outside the strict Islamic law in force in the Indonesian province of Aceh.
The district, located at the northern end of Sumatra, is the only one in the country where sharia law is in force.
It is the most conservative area in the country, which is home to around 250 million people and the largest Muslim population in the world.
General elections are due to be held in Indonesia on Wednesday.
Local authorities in Banda Aceh punished a number of people with public canings for crimes including gambling and sexual relations outside of wedlock.
In the quiet streets of the provincial capital some of the sharia laws were relaxed – non-Muslim women did not wear veils and gender segregation was not strictly observed.
The latest revision of sharia law in 2015 criminalized gay sex, consuming alcohol and other common crimes such as murder and rape.
A defense lawyer, who did not want to be named, said the legislation mostly affects women, who are held responsible for crimes such as adultery, rape and the moral faults of a family.
“The woman is the pillar of religion, when the pillar breaks the religion and the community also break,” she told EFE.
The woman, who breaches sharia law by not covering her hair and wearing trousers instead of a skirt, said she has received threats for her activism and support of other women.
“Some community leaders call me provocative because I talk about cases and say that women should raise their voices and fight for their rights,” she added.
“Sometimes I imagine that one day I will go to jail and then, after I have lost everything, I will feel more free to speak louder,” she said.
The province introduced Islamic law in 2003 as a concession from the central government to abandon its independence aspirations and as part of a peace process with armed separatist group Free Aceh Movement (GAM, in Indonesian).
Although the majority of the population of Aceh support the existence of sharia law, critics of its implementation have increased in recent years.
Mirza Ardi, a professor of Islamic law at Syiah Kuala University, said sharia does not include beatings with sticks or forcing women to wear the veil but education, reducing inequality and good government.
He told Efe that moderate factions of society were not listened to when the laws were revised and said that there is a climate of fear and self-censorship among progressive intellectuals.
The provincial legislative chamber in Aceh is close to the leaders of Islamic schools, which “see Islam in a sectarian, very conservative way, so nobody listens to the voices of the more moderate on campus,” he added.
In 2015, university professor Rosnida Sari took her Muslim students to a church as part of a lesson and was accused of trying to Christianize them and threatened with death.
Not far from the centre of Banda Aceh is a house covered in graffiti which is used as a meeting place for young artists in search of a free space within the rigidity of the society.
Mohamed, a musician who only wanted to give his first name, formed a band with two other artists which criticizes a number of social topics.
The 25-year-old said censorship is “excessive” when talking about the government or religion.