BANDA ACEH — The cafe is packed with men sitting in front of their third cup of coffee. They chat and smoke kreteks — a type of local clove cigarettes. The lighthearted mood is suddenly interrupted by the sound of the café's metal shutters being slid downward. The conversation dies, the expressions grow frightened. The men are on the lookout. The café is located opposite the grand mosque in the Indonesian city of Banda Aceh. It's prayer time and they know they should be at the mosque.

Banda Aceh, the capital of the Sumatra province, has 4 million inhabitants — 98% of whom are Muslims. It's the only Indonesian region governed by Sharia law. Wilayatul Hisbah, the female Sharia police, patrol the city in vans looking for men who aren't praying at the mosque. Last year, policewomen knocked down the café's doors armed with batons to lecture patrons.

"For me, religion is something private. The government has no right to enforce that," says Andri, a 30-something Muslim with long hair that's tied up in a ponytail.

In 2001, the region of Aceh acquired an autonomous status that allowed the province to introduce Islamic decrees in the penal code. So the local government banned gambling and alcohol, forced women to wear veils and modest clothing, and outlawed sexual intercourse outside of marriage. Any rule-breaking is met with public flagellation.

"Here, women can work, drive and enter the mosques through the same door as men," says Yusni Saby, former president of the Islamic University in Banda Aceh, highlighting the difference between how Sharia is practiced in his province and in Saudi Arabia. "Before being a person from Aceh, we are Indonesians and we must also adapt to national Indonesia law."

A Sharia police officer stopping women in Banda Aceh — Photo: Fauzan Ijazah/ZUMA

In 1976, civil war broke out in Aceh between the separatist Free Aceh Movement supported by locals and the Indonesian army. About 15,000 people were killed over three decades and thousands more went missing. The national government offered Aceh Sharia law in 2001 to appease separatist rebels and to restore peace in a region of Indonesia that has been called the "porch of Mecca."

On Dec. 26, 2004, the tsunami hit Aceh with full force even as the province was still recovering from the civil war. In 20 minutes, 168,000 locals died. The tragedy finally brought the conflict to an end and opened up the province to the rest of the world. Jakarta and Aceh signed a peace accord in Oslo. Humanitarian aid poured in from all over the world to rebuild the region.

But once the foreigners had left, Sharia law strengthened. Last year, more than 100 locals were caned for breaking Sharia law. In a report this year, human rights group Amnesty International said that the number of public floggings, especially in rural areas, was rising.

Last summer, police found 18-year-old Kiantri with her boyfriend in her bedroom — a crime under Sharia law. She was punished by being caned nine times in front of a village mosque. "It's a double penalty," says Ruwaida, director of the women's rights group Solidaritas Prempuan. "Not only are they publicly humiliated but women also often find themselves forced to leave the village because of their stained reputation."

Women are the first victims of Sharia law, says Ruwaida. "The biggest problem is freedom of expression. Clothing, curfews in the evening, behavior in public spaces.” The Islamic decrees are also impractical, she notes. Working in the mountains or driving a scooter on bumpy roads in a long skirt is risky and can lead to accidents.

City women also say there are no places to relax in Banda Aceh. "The beach closes at 6 p.m., concerts are banned after 11 p.m. and cinemas destroyed by the tsunami were never rebuilt," says Vira, a local singer, saying she doesn't feel free in Aceh.

But, Vira adds, alcohol and hotels for non-married couples are just a one-hour flight away.