The lights of Plaza Indonesia, with its swanky hotels, glitzy malls and iconic fountain roundabout, are only a few blocks to the north of Taman Lawang, a very different Jakarta neighbourhood. Come midnight in the leafy street that cuts into one of Jakarta’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, the dimly lit road belongs to young beauties who go by flashy names like Tiara, Marsha and Venus.
Customers stop their cars to haggle over the price of their company, and groups of giggling teenagers on scooters linger nearby to flirt with the idea of a tempting escape. For the beauties on the sidewalk are transgender sex workers, and Taman Lawang has long been synonymous with them.
For most of Indonesia’s trans sex workers, taking to the streets at night is a choice, but also, typically, it’s the result of having very few alternatives. The country, with its 245 million people, has the biggest Muslim population in the world. Yet most of the 86 percent of Indonesians who follow Islam live by moderate interpretations of the Koran, influenced by the archipelago’s animistic and Hindu traditions that predated Allah’s word here.