Between Worlds: Jilbab and Transgender in Indonesia

It is a scene that wouldn’t be unfamiliar in France or Belgium: a woman’s hijab is snatched away by strangers on the street from her head despite her protest. She is told she shouldn’t wear it, or rather, she has no right to because her wearing it mocks other women and femininity itself. But it is not an episode of Islamophobic rage that is recounted by Shuniyya Rumaha Haiibalah, but an incident in her native Indonesia that would later become the title of her best-selling memoir, Jangan lepas jilbabku! (Please do not remove my jilbab!)

Haiibalah is Muslim and transgender. The hostile reactions from other women and men towards her decision to wear the jilbab (hijab) in public was based on the belief of the irreconcilability of being waria* (transgender) and expressing religiosity in the gender of choice.

While other waria do not mix gender identity with religious identity (as the video above shows, some transwomen dress as men in places of worship), women like Haiibalah attend prayers at the mosque alongside other cis-gender women much to disapproval of some, particularly those who argue that physical contact with Haiibalah’s biologically male body can render another woman’s prayers annulled.

Jangan lepas jilbabku! begins in 1997 when Haiibalah turns 16. The writer describes her gradual transition from male to female as eventful as the moment Indonesia regains its democracy at the end of Suharto’s dictatorial regime in 1998. She describes the kind of woman she wants to be: an ordinary woman, good-looking even without make-up, someone who wears the jilbab, independent, headstrong, and accepted. In school, Haiibalah is an active editor of the school’s Islamic magazine, and a popular student. Using her popularity and religious image as a social buffer, Haiibalah began experimenting with her appearance. She plucked her eyebrows into a pair of thin, arching crescents; suffice it to say, this led to other arched eyebrows. After being told that her eyebrows were seen as “inappropriate” for young men, Haiibalah went on to tackle what ostensibly is taboo: she, a transwoman, wearing a jilbab.

Haiibalah is one of many transgender Indonesians who are religious and adopt the jilbab, but how the transgender community see themselves is diverse. Some, like Haiibalah, identify as women—within them lies a woman’s soul (jiwa) in a man’s body. Others, on the other hand, view themselves as both male and female, and there are waria who identify as the third sex. Unlike Haiibalah, some transwomen who wear the jilbab attend prayers in male attire but revert to women’s clothing and feminine demeanor the rest of the time.

The waria community has long been stereotyped as hairdressers, make-up artists, and sex workers in Indonesia. In film, they are doomed to dehumanizing comedic roles. But transgender Indonesians, particularly the male-to-female waria, have witnessed the rise of high-profile media personalities, such as Dorce Gamalama, cited by many as Indonesia’s answer to Oprah Winfrey. Her success is a significant step towards more positive representation of the waria.

More recently, the well-received film, Realita Cinta dan Rock ‘n’ Roll (Reality, Love, and Rock ‘n’ Roll, 2006), foregrounds the relationship between a transwoman and her son. The film is a startling departure from older cinematic stereotypes of the waria, as it features a good-looking, affluent, judo-wrestling and salsa-dancing trans-mother. Jangan Lepas Jilbabku is not the first book by a transperson to make it to the best-sellers list. Both Jangan Lihat Kelaminku (Do Not Look At My Genitals) and Perempuan Tanpa V (Woman Without a Vagina) by Merlyn Sopjan are tales of personal triumph over transphobia, winning Sopjan fame and fortune as writer, later as beauty queen, AIDS activist, and mayoral candidate.

Although much of their media presence is highly sensationalized, the rising number of transgender Indonesians entering the public sphere in the face of increasing Islamization may be a strategy for acceptance. But as Haiibalah’s experiences attest, even religious expression is a gendered privilege. The hostility against transwomen like Haiibalah who adopt the jilbab as part their identity raises new questions about the hijab and femininity.

In this case, the jilbab becomes more than just a head covering, as it is perceived as a kind of privilege accorded to cis-gendered Muslim women. Also, it throws the issue of transphobia within sacred spaces into sharp relief. Denying a transwoman’s right to wear the jilbab highlights the fundamental notion that being a woman is reduced to a vagina attained at birth. Like public toilets, not only do places of worship pose as no-go zones for transwomen, but they undermine the assertion that transwomen are women.

Haiibalah sets a precedent for a public discussion on gender privilege and religious expression in Indonesia, and indeed, the discussion goes beyond the jilbab and praying next to other women, as it is fundamentally about power and privilege in religious communities.

*Waria is a combination of the words for woman (wanita) and man (pria).

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