Indonesian transgendered find refuge in Islamic school
AFP - Tuesday, November 11
YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia (AFP) - - Heavyset and wearing the pink Islamic headscarf and matching flowing clothes of a pious Indonesian housewife, 48-year-old Maryani says her penis is a gift from God.
Born as a boy and raised as a Catholic, Maryani spent years of drinking and selling sex on the streets as part of this city's transgendered community before discovering Islam.
Now, with her eight-year-old adopted daughter Rizky Aryani scrambling across her sturdy thighs, Maryani says her job is to bring Islam to her fellow "waria," as transgendered people are known here.
Tucked into a small alley in Yogyakarta, Maryani's house has been turned into Indonesia's first Islamic school set up specifically for waria.
The school is named Senin-Kamis, meaning Monday-Thursday. And twice a week, around 20 waria in tight jeans, skirts, straightened hair and fastidiously applied makeup come in -- many bleary eyed from a long night of drinking and searching for clients -- to study the Koran and get better acquainted with their religion.
"Waria are people too, we want to be religious. We have a right to heaven and we have a right to hell. Because we've been given life we have to remember God," Maryani says.
"I'm thankful to God I've been given this fate, that I live like this."
Indonesia's waria -- their name is a portmanteau of the words for "woman" and "man" -- have a long history here as a third sex, neither man nor woman, in the world's largest Muslim-majority country.
As the word transgender implies, the waria are men who prefer to live as women. Some have surgery or take hormones to enhance their feminine attributes -- including having breast implants -- but do not have radical sex-change operations.
While Indonesia does not keep definitive figures on how many waria there are nationwide, there are an estimated 300 in the Yogyakarta community.
More an object of ridicule than scorn, waria see selling sex as one of a handful of viable ways to make a living. Looking for clients at night on street corners and by train tracks in Indonesia's sweaty, amber-lit cities is also the centre of social life for many.
The Senin-Kamis school, which was set up in July, steers clear of judgement. It has a policy of not lecturing charges and avoids pushing waria to become "real" men or women.
Maryani herself says she's happy the way she is, and has no plans to get rid of her penis in a sex change operation.
"I don't want an operation because I'm thankful to God for what I've been given. If I get an operation I will be violating God's will," she says.
"My breasts are only an addition, but I won't get rid of this gift from God."
The teachers at the school are a rotating crew of around 25 ustadz, or religious teachers, from a much bigger nearby mainstream Islamic school run by preacher Hamrolie Harun.
Teacher Heri Suchaeri, a straight man who is married with kids, says he approached teaching at Senin-Kamis with trepidation at first.
"Certainly, if a person looks at it superficially then 'whoa, this is a queer, a waria'. But actually after we went in there and we followed what they do, they also have hearts, they also want to pray, they also have a God," he says.
"Our main goal isn't to say 'you have to become a man', we don't have the right," Suchaeri says.
-- "When I am old I will still be like this" --
The school teaches skills such as baking and beauty therapy to get the waria off the streets, but its main focus is religious guidance that will leave students equipped to make the right decisions themselves, he says.
For the students sitting on the school floor and fiddling with mobile phones and makeup compacts, there is a fine line between feelings of guilt and defiance at a society that gives them few options.
"If you ask me going out at night is not good, but this is the only way we can meet our everyday needs," Tika Aurora, a slender and articulate 26-year-old, says of the 20,000 rupiah (1.86 dollars) payments for sex that supplement the incomes of many waria.
"My principle is that I'll stay like this in the future, when I'm old I'll still be like this.
"We have hopes like other women. We hope to live with someone beside us, hope for a son. To live like regular people."
Maryani, who looms like a matriarch over the students, appears unfazed as her charges discuss seven-nights-a-week drinking bouts, beatings from drunk customers and relationships with regular boyfriends who diligently drop them off at the start of a night's work.
"We have biological needs, basic needs. Waria also definitely need relationships," says 29-year-old Maria Alda Novika.
The students say the school gives them an opportunity to follow Islam freely without the confusion caused by the religion's many divisions between the sexes, including the separation of men's and women's prayer areas in mosques.
Senin-Kamis allows waria, as well as anyone else, to pray together in a small half-room at the back of the house shared with a concrete-floored kitchen-cum-laundry.
When it comes to prayer time, the waria are free to dress as men or wear the billowing, body-covering mukenah prayer shroud of Muslim women. Most choose the latter.
Despite its gender-bending ways, the school has drawn only sporadic criticism from conservative clerics here, mostly for its softly-softly approach.
Syarifuddin Abdul Gani, the head of the edict council of the Indonesian Ulema Council, a peak group of clerics known as a bastion of conservative Islam, concedes waria "have a right to live and receive knowledge".
And perhaps reflecting Indonesia's age-old ambivalence to transgenderism, Gani says the waria at the school are allowed to dress as women as they pray -- so long as they consider themselves men the rest of the time.
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