By Prodita Sabarini
Amid the recent news of religious fundamentalism spurring violence against minority groups like Ahmadis and Christians, one Muslim transgendered woman is demonstrating the openness of Indonesian society by offering up her Islamic school to fellow transgendered Christians for masses and prayers.
Mariyani, 51, is built like a large matriarch. The transgendered woman has received local and international media attention since 2008 when she transformed her home in a small alley in Notoyudan hamlet, Yogyakarta, into a place for transgendered women to study Islam.
She began Pesantren Waria with Koran readings and prayers every Monday in order to provide a space for transgendered women who were also Muslims to feel comfortable in practicing their faith.
The term waria comes from wanita (woman) and pria (man), and is used to describe people who are born with male reproductive organs but with a female gender identity, i.e. transgendered. Waria decide on their own whether to wear sarong during Islamic prayers — as men do — or to cover their bodies with the mukena — as women do.
Mariyani’s home-turned-school has become a place for waria to seek spirituality and refuge. Recently, a 19-year-old transgendered woman who learned about the school from newspaper articles and the Internet left her hometown in Lombok, where her family was having problems accepting her gender identity, to stay at Mariyani’s place before finding a job at a department store.
Wearing a black hijab, Mariyani said she aspired to provide Christian (Catholic and Protestant) waria a place to congregate.
“Here, the waria who are Christians — they don’t have a place to gather to hold mass. I would like to provide a place here, as long as it does not coincide with the pesantren’s activities,” she said.
She plans to invite her Christian friends from Yogyakarta, Malang, Surakarta, Banyuwangi and Surabaya to come on March 15.
“I invite waria from any religion to worship here. If they don’t have a place, my place is open to them,” she said.
“We want to embrace every religion together in peace. Every religion is good. There are no religions that are bad. Humans are the ones who are bad.”
Mariyani, popularly called Bu Mar or Mbak Mar by friends and neighbors, recently registered the school through a notary – a move to give her school legal power if members of the public ever protest.
She plans to request permits from the local administration and the police in order to open up her home to Christian waria for worship.
“We don’t want what happened in Bekasi or Temanggung to happen here,” she said, referring to conflicts between radical Islamic groups protesting the presence of a Christian congregation in Bekasi and the recent attacks on churches in Temanggung. “If I don’t get the permits, I won’t be able to do this.
“My intentions are good. If people want to raid me, go ahead. But, thank God, in the three years the school has been open there have been no objections whatsoever,” she said, adding that the Yogyakarta Ulema Council even invites her to their events. Mariyani said people in Yogyakarta were tolerant for accepting her school. Raised Catholic by adopted parents, she converted to Islam as an adult, and said that religion could be helpful in leading a person to a better life.
“It can help waria think in the long-term and help them make better decisions.”
She explained that being in touch with their spirituality helped transgendered women to make good life decisions. A lot of transgendered women live from one day to the next as sex workers, she explained.
Mariyani also once lived that lifestyle, working as a prostitute in Jakarta before returning to Yogyakarta and starting work at a beauty salon.
Mariyani said her Islamic school didn’t attempt to turn transgendered women into men.
“My intention is to worship God. I don’t care what people say.”
To people who say that being a transgendered woman is wrong, she says: “That’s a human trying to act like God. Whether God accepts acts of worship, that’s His concern. One’s sex does not determine whether one goes to heaven or not. Their faith in God does,” she said.
But, Mariyani does not just want to give Christian waria a place to worship.
Speaking in Yogyakarta’s alun-alun, she candidly said she also wanted to give transgendered women a chance to have a dignified burial when they pass away.
“I want to invite Christians to be able to practice their faith. When they pass away someday, the Catholic or Protestant churches can provide a coffin and burial.”
But, she wants to be able to provide more than just the simplest of burials for waria.
She is planning to speak to the Yogyakarta Interfaith Forum about her plan.
Many transgendered women, because of difficulties with their families, leave their homes when they are young and live on their own with fellow waria. Some end up living penniless on the streets, Mariyani said.
Transgendered individuals and transvestites are also among the high-risk groups for HIV and AIDS, together with injecting drug users, sex workers and men who have sex with men.
The idea to provide Christian transgendered women a place to congregate arose after she attended the funeral of a transgendered woman given by the city’s Social Affairs Agency.
“It was like burying a cat. The burial space was so narrow. They put the body in and covered the ground,” she said. “It was already very gracious of the Social Affairs Agency to provide the burial for a waria.”
However, Mariyani hopes transgendered women will be able to receive better burials.