Indonesia has a history of gender and sexual diversity. But hardliner Muslim groups increasingly dominate public space and have already executed several attacks on transgenders, gay men and lesbian women. So how do Muslim transgenders negotiate a space for themselves? There is little tolerance for transgenders in mosques – a strictly binary order is upheld. People must choose whether they sit with the men or with the women.
In Yogyakarta some brave and inventive transgenders have set up a boarding school for waria, as is the name for MTF transgenders. The word is a combination of wanita (woman) and pria (man). Ibu (mother, polite form of addressing a woman) Mariyani has taken the initiative. Few occupations are open to waria, they are predominantly street singers or entertainers, sex workers or beauticians. Ibu Mariyani herself graduated from sex work to opening her own beauty shop, in which she makes up brides and grooms for their weddings, in accordance to various regional traditional styles. Behind the parlour in which she works, lined with big piles of clothing and head ornaments, she has prepared a few rooms for religious purposes. From Monday to Thursday waria can come here, study the quran, and learn to sing elaborate Arabic phrases. They can also sleep over. They can choose from a pile of women’s prayer clothes (mukenah) or men’s (sarong) Muslim dress to perform their prayers, depending on their mood. A Christian priest also regularly offers his services, so that this little boarding school is a model for Indonesia’s traditional religious tolerance, which is now under attack from Muslim militia.
The Al Fatah boarding school, as it is called, is protected in various ways. The land belongs to the Sultan of Yogyakarta. The king and his wife, queen Hemas, are known for their support of women’s and minority groups. In practice this translates to the protection of the sexual police. Ibu Mariyani has also managed to get the support of the local branch of the Muhammadyah, a Muslim mass organization. Even though they at times have shunned me, she says, I kept joining their meetings, and now they tolerate us. They failed to get a licence from the conservative Ministry of Religion, but registered themselves with a notary as a foundation. Ibu Mariyani and her friends steer clear from more radical sexual rights groups, though gay men and to a lesser extent lesbian women join their activities. They want respectability, and particularly respectable jobs, so they don’t have to "go out at night", the euphemism Ibu Mariyani uses for sex work. She managed to find a job as a shop attendant for a young attractive waria who was rejected by her family and ended up on her doorstep. She has a beautiful voice and sings Arabic quranic phrases for us. She learned this at a Muslim boarding school in a village where she was kicked out for slowly turning into a waria instead of an adolescent boy. The Al Fatah group also helped victims of the eruption of the Merapi volcano in 2010, and the big earthquake a few years earlier. As they don’t have money, they provided free haircuts to the refugees, in the hope that Allah in the hereafter and their neighbours in the present will notice their good deeds.
The waria of the Al Fatah boarding school regularly visit the graveyard where their friends are laid to rest. Nobody else will respect dead waria. A few months back they sent the body of a waria who had died of complications with AIDS back to her family. However her parents rejected their deceased family member and sent the body back. Ibu Mariyani then arranged for the last rites to be performed.
When we visited the boarding school in October 2011, we were welcomed by Ibu Mariyani in a splendid long gown, complete with a jilbab. The local officer of the sexual police offered a word of welcome, and some older waria performed various traditional dances. Their faces, swollen through ample application of silicon, were heavily made up. Ibu Yayu, magnificent in a transparent yellow gown over a red dress, with glittering fake jewellery, and silver high heeled shoes gave a passionate rendition of the evergreen Bengawan Solo. She managed successfully to negotiate the difficulties surrounding the high pitch of the song. Ibu Mariyani and her adopted daughter then led us around the premises. All she wants, she mused, is to lead a religious life, to support her waria friends in their efforts to get proper jobs and to educate her daughter. If her business would be successful, she might even go on the haj, she hoped.
Prof. Dr Saskia Wieringa