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Transgendered in Malang

The waria community in this East Javanese city are out in the open, but misunderstanding and prejudice are still widespread.

Kim Heriot-Darragh

Ibu Siama at volleyball match
Ibu Siama at the volleyball match
Kim Heriot-Darragh

Jumping off a motorcycle in a kampung not far from Malang’s Gajayana train station, I asked some men where I could find Ibu Siama. She had insisted that anyone in this part of town could direct me. My question, however, was met with bemused expressions as the cluster of men tried to deduce just who Ibu Siama might be. Eventually, a look of realisation dawned on one man’s face. He broke into a smile and laughed. His friends were laughing too. ‘Oh, you mean Pak Saleh. He’s over here…’

The confusion arose because I was looking for an 82 year old male to female transgendered person – reputedly, the oldest waria in East Java. The men’s reaction was a good illustration of the position of the transgendered community in Malang: Ibu Siama was not treated maliciously, but she was not taken altogether seriously either.

Conflicting perceptions

While living in Malang in 2006, I encountered a number of waria who varied greatly in their perceptions of themselves, the transgendered community, and the extent to which they felt they were accepted in society. Some looked like men in drag; a couple of others betrayed no indication that they were anything other than women. Some saw themselves as ‘real women’ in a man’s body. Others understood themselves to be a third gender, neither male nor female. I also knew one waria who perceived himself to be fundamentally male: he liked to dress and act as a woman, but ultimately he would die and be buried a man. Though I knew some who sported impressive breasts, I never knowingly met any waria who had undergone a sex-change operation.

In the wider community, perceptions were similarly mixed. Many people are unaccustomed to using the word ‘waria’ to describe transgendered people. More often they use offensive terms like ‘banci’ and ‘bencong’. A neighbour of mine was quick to use the English word ‘faggot’ when he learned of my interest in the local waria community. A number of people were unaware of differences between homosexuals and waria: several times during research work I was introduced to baffled homosexual men.

Waria in society

Despite this confusion about who they really are, waria are certainly an identifiable presence in Malang. No one seems to have heard of any incidences of violence directed at them, even though expressions of hostility against waria are sometimes reported from other cities. Local political parties are aware of the issue of waria (as well as gay) rights. One occasionally hears stories of waria entering mosques dressed as women, and there are a small number of Christian waria who say they have never felt estranged from their religious communities. The majority of waria I knew claimed to have solid relations with their family.

Every few years the Malang city government has offered employment training programs in which waria participants are trained and financially assisted to establish beauty salons (part of an effort to dissuade them from engaging in prostitution). When I enquired in 2006, the Malang city government’s Social Affairs Division told me the last program was held in 2005 and had enrolled 25 participants.

Famous waria enjoy an extensive public profile as entertainers and talk-show hosts. Similarly, Miss Waria Indonesia 2006 Merlyn Sopjan captured considerable public attention, particularly in her hometown of Malang. All copies of her second book, Perempuan Tanpa V (Woman without a Vagina), had apparently sold out by the time of its launch in Malang. Arriving for the launch (broadcast live on a talk-show from the Malang town library), I was surprised by the size and diversity of the audience. The room was packed with university students, waria, and young women wearing jilbab.

Through her minor celebrity status, has been able to highlight the position of waria and portray them as citizens who contribute positively to society. She has even attempted to enter the running for mayor. Mbak Merlyn is also clearly in demand: she wanted Rp200,000 (A$30) for doing an interview with me. It seemed that everyone in Malang knew of Mbak Merlyn; I doubt the transgendered community in countries like Australia enjoys a comparable level of exposure.

Waria are also introduced to the Malang public through regular events like waria volleyball at Gajayana stadium three afternoons a week. The games are organised by the Malang Waria Association (IWAMA), headed by Mbak Merlyn. Occasionally the waria players cop verbal ribbing from the predominantly male, non-waria spectators. But by and large the crowd is a placid one – more curious than abusive. It is usual to spot some regulars, a few young couples and Ibu Siama watching from the sidelines.

Although there is rarely much interaction between the players and crowd (the waria serving more as a curiosity than potential friends), the games are an opportunity for IWAMA to demystify the existence of waria and portray a positive image to counter the popular association of waria with prostitution and petty crime.

The games also serve as a venue where IWAMA member Mbak Viru can flog condoms and HIV/AIDS pamphlets for donations. IWAMA works to improve the position of Malang waria, providing them with a base of support and raising awareness of their cause. With a membership of around 30, the organisation has been working steadily to improve relations with the community, government and police. The Malang waria community is a thriving one.

Pressures and prejudice

On the less positive side, we should be careful about romanticising waria as a showcase of social progress. It is clear that social pressures remain significant for waria and their relatives. When Ibu Siama realised she was a waria at age 10, her older sister disowned her, fearing kampung gossip; the two never spoke again. Another waria had previously been married, and fathered two children who are too ashamed to associate with her.

In the eyes of the two religions subscribed to by the waria I knew – Catholicism and Islam – acts of what is seen as homosexuality run against family principles. According to Bapak Imam Hassan, a former head of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), violence and discrimination against waria is discouraged; but homosexuality needs to be corrected. So too does the tendency of any Muslim engaging in the 'deceptive' practice of cross-dressing. In its 1997 publication, 101 Masalah Islam (101 Issues in Islam), MUI recommended that governments implement social rehabilitation programs to help waria rediscover their masculinity. HIV/AIDS is a significant issue, as is the sheer number of waria working in the sex industry.

There also remains confusion as to the rights of waria according to law, and it has been reported that there have been instances of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of waria for prostitution. Day-to-day verbal harassment has become a staple for waria, and stories of schoolyard victimisation are just as common. Employment opportunities for waria are limited. As is the case elsewhere in Indonesia, if Malang ’s waria do not work in the entertainment industry, there are two stereotypical professions (and realistic options) available to them: beauty and prostitution.

Many of these circumstances facing waria are taken to be facts of life rather than situations demanding change. Insults levelled at waria in the street are regarded lightheartedly by non-waria as words that can't hurt anyone. Most waria themselves seem to understand religious doctrine to be unalterable, not something to be interpreted.

While government programs helping waria to find work in the beauty industry are an important gesture, wider employment options remain closed to them. A representative of the Welfare and Social Rehabilitation Section of the city’s Social Affairs Division made it clear to me that she did not expect an appropriately qualified waria to ever be eligible for a job in her department. A university lecturer in Malang suggested to me that in truth waria were accepted in their village or kampung as long as they hid their activities. And when presenting a talk on waria for assessment at university I was asked how best to prevent the waria disease. These suggestions seem to me to miss the point. Waria in Malang walk along a middle ground where they are not explicitly rejected, but fall short of attaining acceptance.

It seems that everybody in Malang expects to see waria on television, working at their local beauty salon or in a darkened street soliciting sex. But it will be a while before the city’s inhabitants won’t be shocked to find a waria ‘manning’ their local post office counter.   ii

Kim Heriot-Darragh (kim.heriot-darragh@anu.edu.au) spent 2006 studying in Yogyakarta and Malang as part of his Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Asian Studies (Specialist) degree at the Australian National University.

Inside Indonesia 90: Oct-Dec 2007