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Transgender Outcasts Give Lessons in Tolerance

Jakarta Globe interviews Mariyani, a transgender hairdresser in Yogyakarta, who has turned her salon into a safe space for gay, lesbian and transgender Muslims to pray, as they are not often welcomed in mosques.

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

20th September 2010 20:50

Alessia Valenza

Mirrors were tucked behind embroidered drapes, prayer rugs spread over the carpet and fashion magazines replaced by copies of the Koran in preparation for breaking the fast at dusk on a quiet day near the end of Ramadan. In a quiet alley in the ancient Javanese city of Yogyakarta, Mariyani, a 50-year-old transgender hairdresser, has turned part of her salon into an Islamic school.

It’s a place where lesbian, gay and transgender Muslims ­— banned from Islamic schools and unwelcomed at mosques — can safely pray and discuss their religion. “Tonight we are breaking the fast and praying with 90 orphans and poor women from a nearby village.

It’s my 50th birthday today and I want to thank God for giving me this time on earth. I will be called by God in the not too distant future, so I have to do the right thing,” says Mariyani.

Mariyani was abandoned at birth and adopted by a Roman Catholic family in Yogyakarta.

“I was baptized and raised as a Catholic. My adopted parents were very poor. From when I was a young child, I always played with girls’ toys and I knew very early on that I had the heart and spirit of a woman," Mariyani says.

“When I was 13, even before I had a national identity card, I decided I would need to fend for myself.”

Mariyani looks like a typical Indonesian housewife at the gathering. She is wearing a simple long dress, a headscarf and has no makeup, but photos around the salon reveal a different side of her life.

One picture shows her wearing a slinky cream off-the-shoulder evening dress, bright-red lipstick and blue eye shadow.

“I was 20 when I decided to start dressing like a woman. I had my heart broken when my boyfriend married a woman. It was then that I started meeting other transgenders and entered the dark night world. I sold my body on the streets to survive. I traveled across Indonesia working in the popular transgender beats so I could survive. I sold myself for less than 10 cents,” she laughs.

“That was the price back then.” Transgenders, or waria as they are known in Indonesia, have limited job opportunities.

They often worked as prostitutes, buskers or hairdressers in salons.

“Being a transgender is not a choice. If I had the choice I wouldn’t want to become a transgender, but that’s what God decided for me, so I accept this and thank God for it,” she says.

“When I was young I didn’t want to live a good life but as I got older I realized that selling my body was wrong … so I slowly saved money and opened this hairdressing salon and returned to the path of God.”

Homosexuality is not outlawed in Indonesia, but the Indonesian Ulema Council has declared it evil or haram.

It created a social environment that rejects lesbians, gays and transgenders in the community.

This lack of acceptance pushed vigilante groups to campaign for the cancellation of an international conference organized by lesbian, gay and transgender activists in Surabaya earlier this year.

Explaining the seeming contradiction between her sexuality and Islam, Mariyani says that all religions are good — it’s humans that are not.

“There was no sudden awakening or anyone telling me to go to the mosque. Islam just felt right in my heart,” Mariyani tells the crowd that has gathered in her salon to break the fast.

“Even though some ulemas say that our prayers will not be answered, that we are not accepted by God, I believe that we have every right as humans to pray. We are not praying to be ‘healed’ or be turned back into men. No! Praying is our business with God, not with other people.”

Mariyani also asks the orphans, through tears, to respect the rights of transgenders to enter mosques and pray. As the evening call to prayer rings out, the transgenders and the orphans sit down together to have their first sip of water since sunrise.

After breaking the fast, the group prepares to pray. Among the faithful is Novi. She has lacquered fingernails and long black hair, but tonight she is wearing a green sarong and white shirt.

She says she feels more comfortable praying as a man but during the day and in her heart she is a woman. Novi was brought up in what she describes as a fundamentalist Muslim family and attended an Islamic boarding school.

She says she used to dress as a man and hide her true self. “My hope with this Islamic school is that the general public will see that transgenders are not bad people. We have skills and can contribute to society. We can dance and do makeup but we can also teach the Koran. God sees what is inside us and hears our prayers. He doesn’t care about what’s on the outside,” Novi says.

This article was first broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesian radio news agency KBR68H. You can find more stories from Asia Calling at