Nia says she's never fully identified with either societal-prescribed gender. When she was young she tried to follow the school rules, to wear the uniform “as every good boy must do” but that suit, to her, was a constraint. Too rigid. Too severe. Too masculine. “I always felt uncomfortable sitting with boys. They laughed at me all the time,” she says, describing her experience of school. And then, the disapproval of her professors. “The call to order, like a mantra, was always the same: ‘you must be a man!’”
Nia tried to be a man for two years. “Two years of total repression,” as she describes it and then, the transition: breast surgery, touch-ups to the face, longer hair. Her family, as often happens, rejected her. The community pushed her to the edges of society. “People stare at you, then they come closer, threatening you, pulling your hair, beating you.” She looks down, undoes the cuff of her shirt. “I still have scars on my arm.” The right one. “You are a waste of society for them, a freak of nature, an abortion.”
But to Shinta Ratri, Nia is none of these things. The 57-year-old transgender activist began life as a man, and founded Pondok Pesantren Waria al-Fatah—the world’s only Islamic boarding school for transgender people—in 2008. Today the school is housed in a traditional Javanese wooden building in the quiet neighborhood of Yogyakarta, a small city on the Indonesian island of Java. “We needed a safe place for trans women to pray, because Islam is a blessing for everyone,” Shinta says. No prejudice. No bigotry. No discrimination.
“Here they accept me for who I am,” Nia remarks. “I can finally show my true identity, the one of waria.”
Waria means transgender, combining the Indonesian term of “wanita”—or woman—and “pria”—or man. The concept is nothing new in Javanese culture, nevertheless, many people in Yogyakarta seem to have forgotten that made-up men, costumes, dances and entr’actes predate even the advent of Islam. They have forgotten that the other, the “unlike,” has never constituted a threat.
In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, most of 210 million people still consider the transgender community as deviant. It’s all about the attitude to rejection, the deafness of the people, and the harshness of the judgment, which today exacerbates intolerance in both adults and teenagers.
Amid the cold quagmire of sacral prohibitions, the transgender madrasa is a statement, a way to bring waria from the edge to the center of Islam, offering a safe haven of worship where the relationship between “peers”—around 40 mostly LGBT people—is stronger than ever. “It’s not just a school, it’s a family,” Nia says.
Here, she has learned that frailty is not bad, that security is conquered day after day, and that “Islam, the right one, doesn’t judge.” She has understood that it doesn’t matter if society still depicts transgender women, as well as LGBT people more generally, as sinners; she knows she’s right, because, as she points out, “she’s part of Allah's creatures.”
Now, at 25, Nia fears nothing. “What do people know who I am? What do Islamic fundamentalists know about what it means to be waria? Who gave them the right to condemn?” That between her and God “is just a personal bond.”
Renata is still sleepy when the call to prayer booms over the roofs in the early morning breeze on a Monday morning. The sky is clear. The wind is warm. Rere, as everyone calls her, is sitting in her room, legs crossed on the bed. Her eyes are fixed on the mirror, looking at her body with a deep gaze. Her short hair and her Adam’s apple come up against her desire for femininity, sought and sought after. Daring. Greedy. Insatiable. It’s all in there, piled on the bed, between clothes, lipsticks and brushes. It’s all in there, in the red lips, in the long and curved eyelashes, in the pearl earrings. It’s all in there, in the care with which she wears her wig, a brown bob bought the day before. And in the words that accompany the joy of seeing herself as woman: “Here I am,” she says with a smile on her lips: “Renata!”
Rere, 21, understood right away, from the earliest years of her life, that she was born in the wrong body. She played with dolls and felt an attraction to skirts and necklaces. “I’ve always felt uncomfortable playing with kids.” But if childhood tolerates fantasies and whims, adolescence does not. It’s the time of the uniform among school desks, the white shirt, the gray-blue pants. Mockery and derision. Duty and misunderstandings. It took afternoons spent searching and finding herself, hours changing clothes and putting on makeup. She tries and tries again. It’s the time of the self. Secret. Intimate. Private. The years of insults, threats, and fragility. “I hated my physical shape, I felt wrong, sometimes sick. Why was my soul, that of a woman, trapped inside a male body?”
It’s the difficulty in finding answers, the doubts, the intention to devotion, the confrontation with faith, and the perplexity. “I have never been able to enter a mosque, so much more dressed like this,” she says pointing with her forefinger to the muneka, the religious garb she proudly wears, “because for any Imam I am not a real woman.”
Although transgenderism and homosexuality are not illegal in Indonesian, law offers no protection against workplace discrimination or harassment, and the spike in anti-LGBT rhetoric has become a unifying issue for conservatives. Nonetheless, praying, for her, is more than important: “My religion, Islam, is vital for me, but being transgender is not a choice, it’s destiny.”
But people don’t understand: “They observe you, judge you, ghettoise you.” They won't forgive you. And then, the fear of family judgment, the unspeakable, the hostility. Which, after years of restlessness and torment, has not even reduced itself in front of Rere’s courage to show herself for what she is. “My mother kicked me out three years ago.” The voice is strangled: “She didn't recognise me. She didn’t accept me. She didn’t welcome me.” Rere had just turned 18 years old. With his brother, two years younger, she no longer speaks. The father is unmentionable.
Since then she lives in a small outbuilding overlooking the courtyard of Shinta’s school, known during a charity activity. “I approached her a little fearfully, but she understood me instantly,” she says with the happiness in her eyes as she reads the Koran. “She hugged me, supported, and she welcomed me immediately as a daughter.” Shinta: a mother, who taught her to extricate herself from the knots of conformism, proudly claiming her own identity. Overcoming blocks and inhibitions with discretion and freedom, grasping not the privilege but the independence, the normality. Sharing classes, books, study hours, prayers, and similar lives, perhaps still immature, but undoubtedly, now, unbridled. “I’m a responsible student, a good Muslim. Never mind if I’m a girl or a boy, I’m part of this nation and I’ll fight to claim my rights.”
Rere’s tenacity, and that one of other students, stops at nothing. It has overcome, in February 2016, the closure of the school for four months after threats of violence from conservative groups which have gained prominence in recent years, including the local vigilante group calling itself Front Jihad Islam (FJI), claiming the boarding school is violating Islamic precepts. The support of the neighbors and the determination of the waria made sure that the pesantren reopened.
“Democracy exists,” Jessica exults, tripping over the cobbles on her high heels. It’s 10 PM. It’s dark. She’s off to work. Although she too says she’s “trapped in a male body,” to look at her long black hair, impeccable make-up, golden dress, there is no doubt she is a woman.
Accepting it was difficult, it took time. And the question “why me?” sounded like an obsessive motto in her head over the past years. Bolted at school because she was “sissy”, slapped by her father because “a boy should not put make up”, excluded from the community because she was waria. “It’s a stigma.” A sign that marks you for life, which draws the insolence of others, moving the tongues of the greediest, swollen with insults and insolence. “It’s a disgrace, a shame.” Then, the family break, the discovery of sex, and the need for prostitution at 17: “The only way to survive.”
For now, at school, her “refuge”, she prays five times a day. “Making peace with Allah, having a place where you can pray openly in women’s clothes, and deepening your knowledge of Islam, all of this is a liberating experience”. In her heart, as a waria, she is a woman. And in her soul, she is definitely a good Muslim.
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.