Interestingly, Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world. Islam has spread through the archipelago since the thirteenth century, mainly through trade routes that linked coastal communities to each other [Boellstorff, 2005]. The dominance of this religion in Indonesia plays a major role in creating a sense of community, and Vice’s short documentary ‘Vice Guide to Travel: The Warias’ explores the way an Indonesian transsexual community in Java consolidates their strong religious beliefs with their gender identity.
[All photos by Oliver Purser, courtesy of Vice.com]
Maryani is a transgender woman and devout Muslim, and the documentary recounts the hardships she and other Waria face. Waria (the Indonesian term for a transsexual) have for centuries been accepted as a third sex in Indonesian culture, though the rise of Islam has created prejudice within some parts of the community, which makes it difficult for Muslim Waria to embrace both their faith and identity. Islam only acknowledges two sexes – male and female – and it is difficult for Muslim Waria in Indonesia to find accepting places of worship as mosques are typically segregated by gender. In response to the difficulties she and other Muslim Waria’s face, Maryani created Senin-Kamis, an Islamic boarding school, which offers a safe and accepting place for Waria to practice their religion.
The documentary follows the day-to-day lives of the women in the boarding school, and delves into transgender issues in the context of a developing country. Many of the women make a living off of street performing or prostitution, and Maryani herself began working as a prostitute at 15, then worked her way up to owning her own beauty salon, something many Waria aspire to. She states “Everybody needs to make a living, some choose to be prostitutes, some become thieves, some become con-men. God will still bless them.” (Maryani, 2012). This attitude of acceptance is the basis of the Waria community, and creates an atmosphere where each woman can practice her faith and make a living in a tough environment without judgement from others or from God.
‘Tough’ may be an understatement, as viewers follow Maryani to a funeral of a fellow Waria woman who passed from HIV complications. There are no outward signs of mourning from any of the attendees, and it becomes clear this of not a rare event, with usually 4 Waria funerals taking place each month. Maryani warns of the dangers of the deceased’s lifestyle in a speech before the funeral procession. HIV is a major issue within the Waria community due to high rates of prostitution, lack of education, and lack of drugs to contain the virus.
Despite the tragedy of these events and the discrimination each Waria faces in her community, the smiling faces of each woman as they farewell the reporter with a Waria makeover shows the joy they have found within Senin-Kamis. The school truly allows them the freedom to embrace their true selves without fear of judgement or rejection, Maryani standing as a mother figure, ready to embrace any woman of God.
VICE, 2012, Indonesia’s Transsexual Muslims (Documentary), videorecording, Youtube, viewed 28 April 2015, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJTzMHDaOlg >
Boellstorff, T., 2005, ‘Between Religion and Desire: Being Muslim and Gay in Indonesia’, American Anthropologist, Vol. 107, no. 4, pp. 575 – 585.
Brooks, H., 2013, ‘Warias, Come Out and Plaaayayay’, VICE, viewed 28 April 2015, <http://www.vice.com/read/warias-come-out-and-plaaayayay >