Punks in Indonesia negotiate many identities. Some Muslim punks wear mohawks over their hijabs. Others shave theirs off before entering mosques or coming home to see their parents. Others do not care at all and sport their punk attire and bare their tattoos everywhere they go. Often, they are discriminated against based on their appearance and there is an increasing backlash against punks from conservative forces in the country.

In June 2016, the Demak branch of Nadhlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation, banned reggae and punk concerts because they make young people “dress weird” and “stay out all night”. And in the most famous crackdown on the punk scene, which sparked actions of solidarity from punk communities across Indonesia and around the world, Acehnese police arrested 64 punks, shaved their heads, and forced them to pray and bathe in rivers to purify and re-educate themselves.

There are many reasons young people in Indonesia are attracted to hardcore/punk: the loud music that lets you scream your frustration, the do-it-yourself idealism that encourages learning by doing, the defiant attitude that gives the middle finger to a world filled with greed and discrimination.

Some are involved in social or political issues. Jerinx, drummer from the punk band Superman is Dead, has been actively protesting against the large-scale reclamation and development of the Benoa Bay in Bali, a project also widely resisted by local communities for its likely destructive effect on traditional fishing. The band Marjinal has held concerts for victims of forced evictions in Jakarta by governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. Kolektif Betina, a gathering of women in the hardcore/punk communities, mounted LadyFast, a festival and safe space to discuss sexism and ways to overcome it. Many punks in Bandung, West Java, start clothing lines or distros which are places from where magazines, indie music labels and DIY crafts are distributed.

There are many reasons young people in Indonesia are attracted to hardcore/punk: the loud music that lets you scream your frustration, the do-it-yourself idealism that encourages learning by doing, the defiant attitude that gives the middle finger to a world filled with greed and discrimination.

Fashion designer Risma Adhelia, set up her own clothing line, Rismakill Drama Darkcloth, offering stylish gothic outfits for everyday wear. Risma makes dresses, harnesses, corsets, garter belts, cage bras, and other “sick-ass kinky playthings”. Risma used to be into punk; now she’s more into black metal. She started making such items for herself, as she couldn’t find them in Indonesia. She also made gothic wedding dresses for rent and modelled them for photographers.

“At first nobody wanted to work with me, they told me the pictures wouldn’t sell and models were supposed to be thin, tall, and fair-skinned, not covered in tattoos,” she said, “But now I get calls from many photographers and clients.” While people such as Risma find more connections with kindred spirits via social media, conservative elements within Indonesian society are more vocal and visible than ever, and society in general is increasingly polarised. Women, compared to men, face increased stigmatisation in society based on their looks. Risma often finds people assuming she can’t do anything valuable, just from the way she dresses. Abused by her grandfather, Risma left home while still in high school and made a living by sewing and doing odd jobs. When her family found that she had done well, they suspected prostitution.

“I considered it: I was a girl alone on the streets,” she said. “But I felt I had other talents. I promised myself that I would show my family, I was not the shame they think I am.” When she stayed in Makassar, South Sulawesi, her neighbours were utterly surprised that she could sew. “They didn’t think someone covered in tattoos could have any feminine skills,” she said. To prove herself, Risma taught her neighbours to sew. Every day she wears microskirts and fishnet stockings. She doesn’t feel her style limits her movement or makes her unsafe. She talks back when people harass her. She admits, however, that she deliberately cultivates a mean persona, especially in the punk and metal scenes. “That way I don’t get harassed, because guys think I’m scary and not sexy.”

An initiative which makes fashion accessories started by Kolektif Betina was the punk collective Needle ‘n’ Bitch based in Yogyakarta, a city in Java central to the island’s artistic and intellectual heritage. The group hold workshops on sewing, zine-making, and self-defence. Each week members gather in their base camp to sew or knit and bitch about everyday problems, from abusive husbands to mandatory virginity testing for girls and women.

Needle ‘n’ Bitch makes tote bags, aprons, purses, and other accessories from leftover fabrics, imprinted with bold messages such as “Love Sex Hate Sexism”, “Fuck Your Beauty Standards”, and “My Body My Choice”. The merchandise is sold via social media and proceeds go to fund the collective’s activities. By teaching their members sewing and brand management skills, Needle ‘n’ Bitch has become a source of empowerment for women, many of whom have limited other opportunities. At the same time it raises members’ awareness of gender equality and women’s rights.

Punk musician, blogger and film maker Hera Mary has been documenting the punk scene since she was 18. She shot a documentary on women in the hardcore/punk community in Indonesia called Ini Scene Kami Juga (We are Part of the Scene Too). The film showed that women still have to fight for the space to perform and be acknowledged as equals to men in the scene, not as mere fans or sex objects. The film was to be launched at the LadyFast festival, in April 2016, but hardline groups wrecked the festival before a screening could take place. The protesters shouted that the women were prostitutes, satanists and communists. The police stood by watching. Since then the film has been screened in many places across Indonesia.

Hera said the men in attendance felt directly criticised, but many were willing to admit that the problems depicted in the film were real. Hera said she hasn’t experienced violence because of her style. She’s had some heartbreak, though. Many punk men still see women in the scene as “naughty girls” and would only date punk women casually, later choosing a “goody-goody” woman for their serious girlfriend or wife.

A boyfriend took Hera home to meet his parents, only to find his mother repulsed and incensed by Hera’s tattoos. Hera’s own mother stopped talking to her for months when she found out that Hera had tattooed her arms. Hera is now married to another punk, whose family are devout Muslims, but they have never objected to Hera’s tattoos, never even persuaded her to pray. All they ask is that Hera cares for their son.

Another empowering initiative in Bandung is the street library, founded in 2012 by a group of students and punk scenesters who wanted to share the books they had read with other people. Every Saturday night they unroll a mat in Cipakayang Park and lay their books for everyone to read. The well-lit park is a popular hang-out spot for motorcycle clubs, skateboarders, punks, skinheads, metalheads, and other people. Visitors can stop and read at the street library’s corner, or simply chat with each other.

In August 2016, about 50 military men arrived with guns and batons, and dispersed the crowd at Cikapayang Park and beat three street library activists. One of them was singled out for wearing a nose ring.

News of the attack brought public attention to the street library, gaining them thousands of new supporters and boxes of books in donations. People of Bandung placed a huge wreath of flowers at the library’s spot at Cikapayang Park.

“Almost 80 per cent of those who expressed their support were literary people,” said Eheng one of the street library activists. “I wonder if we weren’t a library, would people be as supportive? The way I see it, no one deserves to be treated violently, not if you’re a punk or whatever, even criminals must be treated lawfully.” Eheng said: “We choose to look this way, I don’t feel I have to explain to anyone that we’re good people. If you really want to get to know us, let’s be friends.”

While progressive movements are largely limited to the educated middle-classes, extremism often finds fertile ground among the disenfranchised, for example, the victims of mass evictions in Jakarta. Many previously voted for the current governor, but since he’s made 16,000 urban poor people homeless, he has seen up to 200,000 people rallying against him, accusing him of insulting the Koran. Underground communities such as hardcore/punk contribute to discussions beyond the middle class via zines, clothing lines, music, murals and visual arts, street libraries, and discussions at various base camps and distros. By ignoring or cracking down on underground communities we are losing an opportunity to speak to a large portion of the nation.

(This essay is from the Index on Censorship magazine, the only global magazine covering free expression. To buy a copy click here.)