Transgender women find a safe place to practice their faith in Indonesia


On a recent Sunday afternoon, a group of women lay out books, mats and glasses of hot tea on a shady veranda. It’s time for Arabic class at Pondok Pesantren Waria, an Islamic school in the Indonesian town of Yogyakarta.

File 2664

Credit: Jess Engebretson

Transgender women study during an Arabic class at the Pondok Pesantren Waria Islamic school in Indonesia. Banda Yeti, wearing a cap in the center of the photo, says the school has given her a place to practice her faith free of worry.

It''s one of more than 13,000 such schools — called "pesantren" — in Indonesia. But here there's a key difference: the students are all transgender women.

They're mostly adults, who come after work on the weekend for their religious study. They're known in Indonesia as "waria," a term that mixes “wanita” and “pria," the Indonesian words for “woman” and “man.” 

Bunda Yeti, a stout waria who’s been studying here for several years, carries a small shelf of Arabic textbooks onto the veranda.  

Yeti was raised as a boy, but she knew early on that she was really a girl. In high school, she told friends and began wearing makeup.

It wasn’t an easy decision — Indonesians are relatively tolerant when it comes to transgender women, but discrimination is still widespread. Many waria struggle to get identity cards, which are required for voting, and medical care can be hard to access.

Yeti also struggled with another problem: How, and where, should she pray? In Indonesia’s mosques, men and women pray separately and wear different religious garb. Bunda didn’t fit into either category.  

“Normally I would have joined the men’s section," she says, "but I was wearing a dress and makeup. And could I pray with the women? Of course not.”  

She thought that people would stare at her and worried that her presence would distract other worshippers from their own prayers. Eventually she stopped going to the mosque altogether. She tried praying at home, but it wasn’t the same.  

“For major holidays I might go to the public square in order to pray with other people," she says, "but I couldn’t do Friday prayers at the mosque." Yeti felt she had fallen away from God.

Then, in 2008, a friend of hers opened Pondok Pesantren Waria. It’s a small, informal setup — no grades, no graduation and only about 20 students. But, for the first time in years, Yeti felt she had a place to practice her faith.

Though all the students here identify as women, their dress runs the gamut. Yeti wears traditionally male attire — a sarong and peci cap  — along with a ponytail and red toenail polish. Others prefer more traditional female clothing like headscarves and brightly colored mukena, a garment that modestly covers most of the body.

After dinner, the students hear a presentation from a visiting Islamic scholar. He flips through Power Point slides with titles like “Who are transgender people?” He tells the pesantren’s students that Islam has room for transgender people, quoting the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. The students applaud enthusiastically.

The school’s director, Shinta Ratri says these classes work in two ways: they deepen the students’ faith, but they’re also an opportunity to educate the teachers.

“These days society is more open-minded about transgender people … except the religious establishment," says Ratri, who is also a waria. "Religious thought is stuck just the way it’s always been.”

She thinks inviting mainstream religious teachers to the pesantren might help change some minds, but others in Indonesia’s LGBT community aren’t so sure. One of the doubters is a community activist named Anggarista Apriyanto. He’s quick to say he’s not anti-religion — he’s a devout Muslim himself. But he worries that trying to win over religious leaders is a waste of time. 

Indonesia has relatively few hardline Muslims, but Apriyanto argues “they have a big, big influence and a big role in government.” He thinks it’s unlikely that more moderate, LGBT-friendly Islamic organizations could successfully take on the hardliners — at least not now. In the short term, it's better to focus on a human rights message.

“If we work with [a] human rights approach, we will have bigger support from [the] international community, and also from people who do not agree with Islam,” he adds.  

Shinta, the pesantran director, says she knows that most religious leaders have been slow to change their views. But she says her small school is gaining support from an unlikely place: a university run by Indonesia’s largest Islamic group, Nahdlatul Ulema. They've agreed to provide her school with teachers and support, and the document outlining the partnership now hangs on the pesantren’s wall.  

The agreement may not change all that much on a day-to-day basis, Shinta admits, but the symbolism still matters.