Indonesian Waria: Transgender and Bodily Representation in Islam

Waria is the common Indonesian word for transgender. It comes after wanita (female) and pria (male). In the context of Islamic communities, Indonesian warias have problems religious representation because in Islam, there are clear distinction between male and female, especially when it comes to worship activities. However, some warias in the city of Yogyakarta find their Islamic religious freedom in a pesantren (common Indonesian traditional Islamic school) which is specially established for waria. It is called Pesantren Senin-Kamis (Monday-Thursday Pesantren) since the pesantren is only active on those two days.

The pesantren which was established in 2008 by Maryani, a waria, becomes the field site for Dian Maya Safitri, a CRCS student, to conduct her MA research. And on last Wednesday 28 September 2011, she became the speaker in the CRCS Wednesday Forum to share her research experience. Bringing the title Politics of Piety: Negotiating Islamic Religious Embodiment, she explained that the presentation was based on the fourth chapter of her research. The main subject was the warias’s freedom of choice got by in the pesantren to perform the Islamic rituals in either masculine, feminine or the waria way.

Dian is much indebted to the theory of Saba Mahmood in explaining what Dian called as embodiment, constructing the body in such religious ritual activities. The waria in pesantren can wear the sarong (typical Indonesian male Muslim outfit) or mukena (the outfit for female) or also can take an intention to be waria in Islamic worship. According to Dian, the separation of gender was introduced by the Abrahamic religion which entered Indonesia. Dian added that the pre-Islamic Indonesia there was the figure of androgenic shaman which socially honored by the people.

In the discussion session Endy Saputro from CRCS questioned the use of term embodiment in the theoretical framework of research since it was rather only a matter of construction of Islamic performance that a real a process of embodiment. More than this Saba Mahmood never used the term Islamic embodiment but only agency and embodiment. Dr. Bernard Adeney-Risakotta, the lecturer of CRCS-ICRS, questioned about the indigenous gender concept in Indonesia and also asked whether the process is not really an embodiment but only the process of making choice.

Dian stated that she realized the problem of using term embodiment and she also realized that Saba Mahmood never used the term Islamic embodiment. But since her subject research was the body, she found that the term embodiment being the the most representative one for theoretical elaboration. And in the Indonesian context of Indonesia, the gender was never the problem for Indonesians before the encounter with Islam and Christianity. And after the gender was constructed, the waria have been forced to practice what Tom Boellstorff as ‘dubbing culture’ to be like a male or a female.

Question about self-perception of the Muslim waria came from ICRS student, Lidya Tandirerung, while another criticism, especially about field data and the theoretical concept of sexuality used by Dian, came from CRCS student Khoirul Anam who is also an activist in gay community organization. Answering the question, Dian explained that some Muslim families accept the children who have different sexuality and as such, she cannot avoid the predominant, hegemonic notion of sexuality.

About the data, Dian mentioned that the inspiration of the pesantren came from a kyai or the Javanese Islamic religious leader. His name is Kyai Hamroli. While he is no longer delivering sermon in the pesantren, Dian still put his name on her research since he was the important figure during the pesantren’s formative years. An ICRS student Joko Wicoyo gave a suggestion that the research must explain the transgender tradition of gemblak and tandak in Java to enrich the elaboration. Dian than screened a short video footage for the last part of the discussion. [MoU]

This post is also available in: Indonesian


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