Trans and Muslim: Portraying the Lives of Warias in Indonesia

Trans and Muslim: Portraying the Lives of Warias in Indonesia September 20, 2012

I recently came across a short movie on the life of transsexual Muslims in Indonesia. In the last few years, MMW has covered a few different stories in terms of LGBT activism in Indonesia: issues concerning transgender and transsexual communities, the challenges faced by lesbians and the attempts to bring LGTBQ issues to the public sphere.

Yet there are things to watch, along with our reading!

The Warias: Indonesia’s Transsexual Muslims is a short documentary that presents the lives of Indonesian transsexuals, or warias, as they are called. In this film Hannah Brooks visits an Islamic school for transsexuals. The star of the film is Maryani, a 50-year-old transsexual who owns a beauty salon and runs the Senin-Kamis School for waria from the back of the beauty salon.  In addition to her involvement with the trans community and her job, Maryani raises her adopted daughter on her own.

Maryani’s story is one of challenges. After recognizing her identity as a transsexual at age 14, Maryani was involved in a variety of things including prostitution. Yet, she converted to Islam in her 30s. Despite the paradoxes that life as a transsexual Muslim convert in Indonesia may entail (i.e. community’s rejection and some Islamic scholars’ condemnation), Maryani was committed to bringing Islamic knowledge to the trans community. Maryani’s point in endorsing Islamic teachings is to enable trans people to experience spirituality and to show them that in spite of society’s opinions, Allah created transsexuals, Allah loves them, and they have the responsibility to worship Him.

The documentary features the complex relationship that comes along with failing to fit the gender and sexual moulds generally endorsed by mainstream Muslims. Things like marriage, and the unusual relationships that the warias tend to have with men who are not ready to give up the hetero-normative standard, show the challenges that come along with practicing Islam but not being accepted by a large part of the community.

The film does a great job in drawing the line between the interviewees’ sacred connection to God and the earthly rejection they face in a variety of ways. First, it shows the conflict between pre-Islamic gender standards and those endorsed by the introduction of Islam to Indonesia in the 13th century. Then, it draws on the lifestyles in which the warias decide to engage with Islam, which sometimes could seem paradoxical or incompatible. Finally, and most importantly I believe, it shows that Islam, for the warias, transcends the community that rejects them and is concentrated on their relationship with the divine. Yet, as the film shows, sometimes the relationship with Allah has to be developed, and for that the warias need a safe place.

This documentary, although set in Indonesia, seems to bring closer to home the issues of gender and sexuality in Islam and how they are constantly challenged and reinterpreted. This film allow us, Muslims around the world, to observe how faith develops in those places that are often condemned and how Islamic teachings inspire change for marginalized groups.

This film is definitely worth watching. For one, it invites the viewer to look at things from different angles. It shows us that Islam and Islamic practices are not simply black and white. In addition, although we are not there yet in the quest to accept and include LGTBQ communities, the warias in Indonesia, and particularly Maryani, present a strong case on how Islamic teachings provide room for LGTBQ communities and compel mainstream communities to think outside the box.

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