Lifting the veil: Pondok Pesantren Waria

While discrimination against Indonesia’s transgender community remains a pressing issue, Pondok Pesantren Waria, a specialised school in Yogyakarta hopes to challenge conservative values

Southeast Asia Globe editorial
September 11, 2015
Lifting the veil: Pondok Pesantren Waria
Photo: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images/AFP

Students of a school for transgender people, Pondok Pesantren Waria, take part in a fashion contest held in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

The event was held as part of Shawwal, the tenth month of the lunar Islamic calendar, which is celebrated by the Javanese community as part of religious traditions that also include Eid al-Fitr, or the Feast of Breaking the Fast.

Transgender people – known in Indonesia as the waria, a portmanteau of the words wanita (woman) and pria (man) – take an active role in the festival celebrations. However, for much of the year, they are often ostracised from mainstream places of worship – mosques are typically segregated between men and women, leaving few places for the waria to pray.

In April, Time magazine published an article about Pondok Pesantren Waria. It provides a safe haven for transgender people and allows them to practise and study Islam, as well as socialise. The school was established last year and operates every Sunday.

According to the Indonesian Transsexual Forum, a survey was conducted in 2008 that revealed there were more than seven million transgender people in Indonesia, making up just under 3% of the population.

Although discrimination is a daily reality for many in Indonesia’s transgender community, there have been efforts in recent years to fight intolerance. There is now an annual Miss Waria beauty pageant and an increasing number of civil society groups are campaigning for more rights for the waria, including making it easier to change official certificates after gender reassignment and for general changes in how society and religion understands the community. 

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