Transvestites, called waria in Indonesian, occupy a special place in otherwise-conservative Indonesia. From the smallest mountain villages to the main streets of big, smelly Jakarta (“The Big Durian”), it’s not uncommon to see a daintily-painted waria walking home or going to work on the back of a moped, crowded in with the rest of the traffic.
Most waria work as entertainers, whether by toting a boom-box down neighborhood streets for spare change or hosting celebrity talk shows like Dorce Gamalama, the “Indonesian Oprah” and a national waria celebrity.
But in 2005, vigilante youth from the Islamic Defenders’ Front forced their way into Jakarta’s annual Miss Waria Contest, and put an end to the competition, arguing that it had to end “before Allah punishes us with a second tsunami”. Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims in the world, and as conservative Islam gains influence, waria now appear in public with a conservative headscarf and jilbab.
Waria are often Muslim, too, after all. But if they want to turn their entertainment experience to proselytizing, they have to travel. Most mosques won’t accept a transgender or transvestite devotee, so religious devotees of unusual genders must make a pilgrimage. Not to Mecca, but to Yogyakarta.
The ancient Javanese city of Yogyakarta holds the world’s first Koranic school for waria. It is run by Mariyani, a waria hairdresser in her 50’s, and lessons are taught by a male Islamic cleric Abdul Muiz Ghazali. His first lesson: “every one of us, including transvestites, has the right to know and get close to their God.”