The waria love having their pictures taken, and most evenings at the school turned into impromptu photo shoots. This is Shinta, beaming after we gave her a Polaroid of herself.
Tucked away inside the back room of a beauty salon in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, is a school for Islamic studies tailored to a very specific student body: transsexuals. The Senin–Kamis school (“Monday–Thursday” in Indonesian, the two days of the week school is in session) was founded in 2008 as a safe place for transgender Muslims to practice their faith without judgment or ridicule. In Indonesia, transsexuals are known as waria, a portmanteau derived from the Indonesian words for woman (wanita) and man (pria). I first learned about the plight of the waria while researching an entirely different story, but on discovering Senin-Kamis I abandoned my original project and made arrangements to visit.
The area of greater Yogyakarta, located on the island of Java, is home to approximately 3 million people and 300 waria. Waria assume the identity of women but usually retain their male reproductive organs, which should make them the life of the party but, as with many transgendered individuals, leaves them prone to discrimination, ridicule, violence, and poverty. Their job opportunities are generally limited to street performing, prostitution, working in beauty salons, or acting on television, playing caricatures of themselves.
Islam was introduced to Indonesia in the 13th century and soon became the country’s dominant religion. These days, around 88 percent of Indonesians identify as Muslim, making Indonesia the country with the world’s largest Islamic population. Traditional Indonesian beliefs and practices have been incorporated into the mix, meaning that while most Indonesians pray to Allah, they’re also scared of ghosts. Following suit, many waria are Muslim, which raises some confusing and convoluted questions about Islam’s official stance on gender-bending. The short of it is that Islamic law forbids men to dress and adopt the mannerisms of women, and vice versa. Unsurprisingly, the image of a bunch of transsexuals facing Mecca with their dicks dangling underneath their jilbāb gives some parts of Islamic society the heebie-jeebies.