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Life as a (special) woman

in INDONESIA, 11/04/2011

What makes a woman a woman? What makes a man a man? For Lulukazyura Surahman (Luluk), 28, being a woman is a question of identity. It is all in the mind and in the way one behaves. It has little to do with one’s sexual organs.

“I’m a woman even though I have a penis,” she said. “I’m a woman, but I’m special.”

And a beautiful one she is. With long black hair, curly lashes and a big easy smile, she said people often did not realize she was transgendered.

Luluk struggled with questions of identity while growing up, from forcing herself to act manly to questioning God. But, despite her struggles to accept herself, Luluk is one of the lucky ones. Her family, with a moderate Muslim Nahdlatul Ulama background, never rejected her for being transgendered and made sure she completed her education until university level. She got her undergraduate degree in sociology and worked as an activist at Srikandi Sejati, an organization that works with LGBT issues.

Other transgendered women have not been so lucky while undergoing the soul-searching process of accepting their gender identity. Often they embrace their identity at the expense of rejection from family and society.

Once they have established their gender identity and found peace with who they are, issues of societal acceptance like teasing and barriers in the workplace continue to haunt their lives.

Many transgendered women end up on the streets and disconnected from their families, while at the same time isolated from mainstream society. Living in exclusive transgendered communities, they busk on the street or solicit sex for money or to find sexual partners.

Vinolia Wakijo, 51, the founder and director of the Yogyakarta Transgendered Women’s Organization (Kebaya) said a lot of transgendered women lived a life steeped in violence.

“They lack social experience since they leave their families at a young age. Life on the street is harsh, especially in the [transgendered] community. Where do they learn ethics? They race to get the best in whatever way. In the end, they live a harsh life,” she told The Jakarta Post at Kebaya’s headquarters in Yogyakarta.

In Jakarta, the transgendered women’s community hangs out at Taman Lawang park. That is where Faizal “Shakira” Harahap was shot earlier this month. Shakira, a transgendered woman, was killed and two other transgendered women, Agus “Venus” Yuliaman and Tantang “Astrid” Stianugraha, were injured. The police are still investigating the case.

In Aceh, Cut Yanti Asmara, a transgendered woman who worked at a moving beauty salon, was killed last week. The suspect, Fuadi, is now in police custody. He allegedly called Cut Yanti “bencong” which loosely translates as “tranny”. Yanti became enraged and came at him with a knife and was reaching for a shovel when the latter allegedly hit her with a crowbar.

In 2008, the Central Jakarta Public Order Agency was accused of violence that led to the death of a transgendered woman in Taman Lawang. The transgendered woman died after leaping into the Ciliwung River while fleeing a hail of stones thrown by public order officers.

Transgendered women in Indonesia are prone to becoming victims of violence, starting from the rejection of their families to cheating customers and bigoted strangers.

For Lenny Sugiharto from Srikandi Sejati, transgendered women have to be emotionally stronger in dealing with mocking and teasing from people.

“When one has chosen to live their life as a waria they have to be ready for the consequences,” she said. She added, “don’t let the teasing get to you.”

Discrimination against transgendered women in the workplace is also a huge problem. Up to now, Indonesian society accepts transgendered women only in specific areas, such as beauty salons and the entertainment industry.

Rully, 50, had to give up being a teacher in a school in a remote area in West Sumba. Raised in Makassar, South Sulawesi, Rully, who has dressed as a woman since she was a child, defied the education system in the early 1980s and presented herself in class as a transgendered woman.

Rully explained to her students from the beginning that she was a transgendered woman. “So they don’t develop the wrong understanding about waria,” she said,

She taught third to sixth graders. “Almost all the students respected me. [There were] only one or two cases, for example a student once said ‘trannies like to suck d*cks’. They didn’t know that I am a devout Muslim. In the early struggle this really hit me hard,” she said.

In the end, Rully felt pressured by the education agency. The head of the provincial education agency called her in. “I was summoned because I’m a waria,” she said.

In the one year that Rully taught, she concluded that mentally she was not ready to “go public” as a transgendered woman. “Almost every day I waste my energy with conflicting thoughts,” she said.

She resigned from being a civil servant. Rully now works with Vinolia in Kebaya as coordinator for support for transgendered women.

While, Luluk and Rully are transgendered women who received family support early in their childhood and completed their higher education without having to run away from home, Vinolia experienced the “dark side” of being a transgendered woman — working as a sex worker.

Mariyani, the founder of an Islamic school for transgendered women in Yogyakarta, led a similar path, living the life of a sex worker before settling down and setting up a beauty salon and in 2006 an Islamic school.

From her work at night, Vinolia was exposed to the outreach activities of Yogyakarta PKBI (Indonesian Planned Parenthood Association) and became a volunteer herself.

Vinolia said many transgendered women are not confident interacting in the community. Constant rejection and mocking from society causes them to have low self-esteem. Vinolia said transgendered women should push themselves and talk to their neighbors and be social. Both Vinolia and Mariyani joined an arisan (savings gathering) with women in their respective neighborhoods in order to be social and accepted in the areas they live in.

But, even among transgendered women their gender identity can be different from one another. Luluk believes she is a woman, and is open to the possibility of a sex change. Meanwhile, Rully, Mariyani and Vinolia believe they are waria (transgendered women).

“We’re women at heart, male physically. These two things together build what is man and women,” she said.

“We are transgendered physically and mentally,” she said.

“I will not have an operation,” Mariyani said. “I don’t want to defy God’s laws.”

She said that as long as she still feels it is a sin, she will never undergo a sex-change operation.

“I’m satisfied like this, I feel pleasure like this, I’m comfortable like this,” she said.

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