Tucked away inside the back room of a beauty salon is a school for Islamic studies tailored to a very specific student body: transsexuals.
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.
Maryani and some fellow waria at the funeral of a friend who died of HIV complications.
Islam recognizes two sexes, male and female, which are segregated during prayer time. The waria have chosen the third way, and in theory can attend prayers as either men or women, but the reality is never that easy. During my time in Yogyakarta, I only met one waria who attends Friday-night prayers dressed as a man; most of the others don’t go, because it’s uncomfortable for them. The imam who teaches at the school tells me, “In Islam, no one is forbidden from entering a mosque.” He argues that while Islam’s religious tenets don’t discriminate against waria, Muslims often do. “Some say transvestites are not allowed, some say they are.” His belief is that waria have the same right to worship God as anyone else, stating firmly: “I’ll take a stand that this school is lawful.”
Senin-Kamis provides transgendered worshippers with a safe place to gather, pray, and learn about the Koran under the imam’s guidance. About 30 waria regularly attend class, held twice a week at sundown. The school also operates a boardinghouse, and there’s usually at least one waria on hand at all times in case someone in need turns up. In the spirit of tolerance and acceptance, gays, lesbians, and Christians are also welcome.
The “school” is actually one very small room with lurid orange walls and mats covering the floor. The only adornments are a TV, a framed poster featuring glamour shots of the school’s personnel, and a large image of Mecca. Maryani, a mountain-size transsexual who eats with the ferocity of a man just released from a POW camp but applies eyeliner better than any woman I’ve ever met, is the school’s founder. She also runs a salon filled with beauty products, giant trophies she’s won over the years for her hair and makeup skills, and a picture of the previous sultan of Yogyakarta, who, Maryani assures me, was a good guy. Behind the schoolroom are a kitchen, toilet, and numerous rats that dart back and forth as we sit talking on the floor.
Jamila’s backyard breast job. The silicone is injected straight into the skin.
I originally arranged to meet Maryani at the school, but before my arrival she asked whether I’d like to attend the funeral of a waria who recently died from complications caused by HIV. Suffering from food poisoning but dosed up on gastro tablets, I arrive and am immediately overwhelmed at the sight of so many waria, sitting on chairs in the middle of the road and leaning against the railings of a bridge, smoking Gudang Garams. Maryani takes my hand and leads me into a room filled with flowers, burning incense, and a casket, which she instructs me to sit next to while prayers are said over the body. Unable to understand a word, unfamiliar with the deceased, and not wanting to puke all over the coffin, I sit still and sweat.
As we follow the funeral procession, I learn that some cemeteries forbid waria from being interred within their grounds. But I am told that this section of Yogyakarta is a waria-friendly community and many are buried here. It upsets Maryani that waria who die without funds or family are often not given a proper burial, but instead unceremoniously dumped in shallow graves like stray cats. The school regularly contributes whatever it can to help cover funeral costs. “In one month, usually four people need to be buried,” she says. “Even when we die we need money.”
Most die from HIV, which continues to ravage the waria community due to high rates of prostitution, scarcity of and lack of education about condoms, and lack of access to drugs needed to contain the virus. At the gravesite, a hole is dug and the body is lowered into the ground. There are no tears or outward signs of mourning; everyone is quiet. Later, Maryani tells me the funeral cost $35.
Novi takes a urinal break.
Over the next few days, I spend a lot of time sitting on the schoolroom floor, smoking ciggies (which everyone at the school enjoys, with the exception of Maryani) while the waria show me photos of their boyfriends on their mobile phones and Facebook pages. They tell me about the music they like—mainly dangdut, Indonesia’s sexy pop music—and a waria named Yuni Shara sings me Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” I learn that Maryani used to be the singer in a dangdut band, and from their excited expressions and hand movements, I gather she was relatively famous at one point.
Later, Maryani and I go to the market to buy some supplies—glittery eye shadow and flower headpieces—and I jump on the motorbike with her and Rizky, Maryani’s nine-year-old adopted daughter. The traffic is nuts, so I wrap my arms around Maryani’s waist. As we zigzag through the narrow streets, I can’t stop laughing as I realize her giant, sweaty breasts are sagging over my hands.
Rizky was still a newborn when Maryani rescued her from abandonment by her birth mother, who couldn’t afford an illegal abortion. As Maryani tells me about the difficulties of being a single mother, tears spill onto her cheeks and muddy her thick foundation. She wipes them away with the end of her jilbāb, and I’m struck that even though Maryani has a penis, she is crying tears that only mothers cry.
Maryani holding a glamorous photo of herself in younger days.
After she composes herself, I ask Maryani whether she’s ever wanted a sex-change operation. She says that she doesn’t have the right to change what God has given her, and that it’s rare for waria to undergo these types of procedures. Besides, she adds, most waria couldn’t afford the surgery even if they wanted to go through with it. I ask her why altering her body and face with silicone is acceptable, but my point gets lost in translation.
The next day I meet Jamila and Wulan, street performers who work in central Yogyakarta. Wulan is wearing a bright pink sari, while Jamila is simply dressed but armed with her voice and a homemade instrument. We walk around for hours as they sing the same Javanese love song over and over, begging for money. Some people smile and happily give them a little cash. Others throw coins at them, teeth clenched, just wanting to be rid of their presence. On a good day they make about 80,000 rupiah ($9) over the course of ten hours. As we walk down a busy street, a child approaches us, notices the waria, and starts screaming. His face is a mask of absolute terror, and his mother furiously shoots laser beams from her eyes. The waria stroll past, unfazed. After spending so much time with them, I’d forgotten that their appearance can be alarming.
The distinctive waria look is magnified by silicone injections to their faces and breasts, giving them a slightly inflated appearance. It’s more pronounced in some, such as an elder school member named Shinta, but most waria appear to have had some work done. From what I’m told, waria believe the silicone gives their features a softer, more feminine look. The procedure, which secretly takes place in certain salons or homes that are able to obtain black-market silicone, is far from cheap and can take years of saving to afford. I discover that Jamila is getting her breasts injected during my visit, and she agrees to let me sit in on the procedure.
The breast injection takes place in a boiling, unsterile room. My face drips with sweat as Jamila removes her t-shirt and lies down, and I start to feel ill. Mendez, my interpreter, is making squealing noises and won’t open his eyes. A glass jar of wobbly silicone appears along with ten thick syringes. Then a pair of anonymous hands performs the job with the confidence of someone who’s done this many times before. Even so, some of the syringes get stuck or clogged as the silicone is injected, and it takes a fair amount of force to push the stopper through. There are no bags: The silicone is forced straight under the skin.
The author dressed as a traditional Javanese bride. Makeup, spangled outfit, and 11-pound headpiece courtesy of Maryani.
Watching a man’s flat chest grow into two small mounds before my eyes is incredibly strange and disconcerting. I’m fixated on their shape; there’s something very wrong about them. Women’s breasts curve from below, but these little hills are round at the top and then flat from the nipple down. After the final bits of silicone are slurped out of the jar and pumped into Jamila’s chest, tape is affixed over the wounds. I feel sick, and Mendez looks green, but Jamila is fine. We go outside for air and cigarettes, and Jamila pulls the lyrics to the song she wants to teach me out of her back pocket. The makeshift boob job is quickly forgotten as she starts singing the melody.
The two waria I meet who haven’t had any work done are also the youngest: Novi and Nur. They claim the injections and other procedures are only pursued by older waria looking to revive their sex appeal. The pair work as prostitutes, and I arrange to meet them one evening at Novi’s boardinghouse, across town from Senin-Kamis, before they head out to the streets. Their room is tiny. As they apply their makeup, Nur, who’s 19, slim, and quiet, tells me that she grew up in Lombok, an island off Bali, and traveled to Yogyakarta to attend Senin-Kamis after reading about it on the internet. She turned up on Maryani’s door, was taken in, and has been a student for more than a year now. She says she’s happy to have met other waria, but it’s different from what she expected. She didn’t think she’d ever be working as a prostitute, but after she quit her day job she had to do something to survive. I ask how much they make a night, and Novi tells me: “I’m grateful if I get 100,000 rupiah”—approximately $11.
Later that night, we head to their regular hooking spot, next to a railway station. I’d heard stories of waria being hit by passing trains while working, and the girls point to an area along the track where a group of older prostitutes routinely hustle.
Not a lot happens: The waria look pretty and get boozy on drinks in plastic bags while they wait for customers. Novi says, “I only drink so I can gain courage to stand up for myself.” It’s possibly the most depressing thing I’ve ever seen.
Maryani left home at the age of 12 and was working the streets by 15, selling her body for as little as 10,000 rupiah ($1). Although the other waria were kind, it was tough. Like many aging waria, she switched to street singing in the 80s and eventually landed a job as a cleaner at a transvestite beauty salon. She worked her way up to become a beautician, with the goal, now achieved, of saving enough money to open her own parlor. Maryani’s success is modest, but most waria don’t make it even that far.
Maryani credits Islam with saving her life, and she’s passionate about its transformative powers. She was raised Christian by parents who adopted her at birth, converting to Islam in her 30s. She stopped drinking and quit her wild ways, shifting her focus to fulfilling God’s purpose for her and, these days, motherhood. She hopes her story can inspire other waria to improve their circumstances. “If transvestites can improve their lives, society would not judge us in a negative way,” she says. These days, her prayers are simple: health, safety, a long life, and that Rizky passes her exams.
Wulan taking a break from street performing in downtown Yogyakarta.
Before wrapping up my trip, I throw a party for my new waria friends. Maryani makes arrangements at a local waria-friendly restaurant, and she offers to turn me into a traditional Javanese bride for the occasion. As nervous as I am about her doing my makeup, I agree. The word is put out for the waria to meet back at the salon the following evening, with everyone dressed to the nines.
Most of the waria arrive at the salon as men, or something in between, and they transform into women there. Maryani wraps me in a sarong and begins applying makeup. The more she slathers on, the older and more orange I feel. But I’m impressed by her dexterous application of false eyelashes. Her assistant places about 11 pounds of wet pandanus plant atop my head, held in place with what seems like hundreds of bobby pins. She covers it with a flower headdress and then puts black and gold stickers over my hairline. Maryani tells me I look cantik—beautiful. She hands me a batik sarong and a sheer lime green top, dripping with sequins and beads, and helps me put them on. I see myself in the mirror. It’s frightening.
The restaurant has a stage, sound system, and a guy who plays keyboards while the waria sing. He asks who the new ladyboy is, and I realize he’s talking about me. The waria take turns performing dangdut songs, and I’m dragged to the dance floor numerous times, but the soggy pandanus on my head is so heavy that it’s hard to move. One of the oldest waria performs a traditional Javanese dance, and even the imam and his family show up. Inside, there’s no booze, but outside Novi and her friends are secretly drinking in the bushes, away from Maryani and the imam’s watchful eyes. We know it’s time to leave when the keyboard player, as some kind of weird joke, pulls a gun on my photographer in the male restroom. Soon the waria pile onto their scooters, taking care that their sarongs and evening gowns don’t get caught in the wheels. We wave goodbye and call one another “beautiful” a few more times, which they are, despite all the silicone, wild armpit hair, and cheap wigs. With lipstick in their pockets and God on their side, it seems that the waria have a fighting chance.
Watch our documentary about the plight of the waria this month on VICE.com.