Warias is the term given to Indonesia’s third sex, an amalgam of Indonesian words ‘wanita,’ woman, and ‘pria,’ man. Likened to cross-dressers, drag queens or transsexuals in the wider international community, specifically warias would be demarcated as transwomen, however in a more poetic self-description; ‘a waria is a man with the soul of a woman, (Tales of the Waria 2012). In a country that is known for both its anti-discriminatory culture as well as its Islamic majority, the life of a waria is one of contradictions.
Indonesia has the highest Muslim population in the world, some 88% of the 250 million residents identify as Islamic, thus accounting for 12.7% of the world’s Muslims (BBC 2015). However, cross-dressing has a respected history in Indonesia that dates back before Islam’s arrival into the country in the 13th century, now tradition of the Bugis people of South Sulawesi (IIAS 2002).
Whilst Islam dictates hetero-normativity, many warias adopt Muslim practice, however not without confrontation. Men and women are segregated within mosques, and although some warias conform to this sexual binary, many are uncomfortable doing so, despite the connotation that ‘no one is forbidden from entering a mosque.’ One waria, Mariyani, has received much local and international attention after transforming her home-based beauty salon in Yogyakarta into a sanctuary-like Islamic school for warias to study and worship (VICE 2011).
Mariyani believes that warias have the right to worship in security, her philosophy of acceptance extending even further – ‘I invite waria from any religion to worship here. If they don’t have a place, my place is open to them,’ (Jakarta Post 2011). Whilst Mariyani seeks to improve the role of religious freedom for warias, economic and social grounds often govern their lifestyle.
Mainstream media often stereotype warias as flamboyant comics, sex workers and fringe dwellers. Prejudice and discrimination often accounts for many warias falling into this typecast. Shuniyya, a waria from the Yayasan Putri Waria Indonesia dismisses these saying ‘There are waria who work as designers, psychologists and sociologists. The image that all waria are sex workers or employees of hair salons is simply a myth,’ she says. ‘In the end, only a waria knows what it means to be a waria. We have to define ourselves.’
The life of a waria is one of extremes, from jovial beauty pageants to facing persecution from religious extremists. The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) is a conservative Islamic group who often express intolerance towards warias – in one case, violently shutting down the 2012 Miss Waria pageant resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars lost in fundraising and organisation. Despite religious paradoxes, spokesperson warias such as Mariyani and Shuniyya maintain high spirits. Like many social minorities, warias become warriors, facing countless hardships with the hope that Indonesia’s reputation of tolerance transcends discrimination.
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