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Indonesia’s Only Islamic School for Transgender People Quietly Comes Back to Life : A Tale of Hope and Strength

At this one-of-a-kind school, Ibu Shinta and her students are known as waria, a term for transgender women that combines the Indonesian words for woman (wanita) and man (pria)

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Ibu Shinta (center) is seen surrounded by students at Indonesia's only Islamic school for transgender students, which she runs out of her house in Yogyakarta. (K. Varagur/VOA)
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Indonesia, September 22, 2017 : Indonesia’s only Islamic school for transgender people closed with much drama in February 2016 after it came under fire by a local hardline Muslim group. The school’s closure was one of the darkest points in a larger anti-LGBT hysteria that seized Indonesia in 2016, with its effects still reverberating.

If you ask today around the leafy Kotagede neighborhood of Yogyakarta, a university town in Central Java, for the Al-Fatah pesantren, or Islamic boarding school, you may get some blank stares. But if you ask for “Ibu Shinta’s house,” you’ll be immediately sent on your way. Even some locals don’t realize her briefly famous school is up and running again. But for Ibu Shinta, the 2016 episode was only a hiccup in the history of Pesantren al-Fatah, which turns nine years old on Thursday.

Ibu (“Madam”) Shinta is Shinta Ratri, a 55-year-old transgender activist who moved the school to her family’s Javanese-style house in 2014 when the school’s original founder died. After four months of closure, Ibu Shinta quietly reopened al-Fatah’s doors in June 2016, during Ramadan, which she described as a “good time for worship.”

Beyond providing a place for weekly religious study, the re-opened school is also a lifeline of services and just ordinary social life for the local transgender community.

Waria social services

Ibu Shinta and her students are known as waria, a term for transgender women that combines the Indonesian words for woman (wanita) and man (pria). Many have found employment as sex workers or in hair salons.

The al-Fatah school has become an important local center of the national “Transgender Care” program, an initiative of the Indonesian Family Planning Association to give vocational training, ID cards, and social services to wariaacross Indonesia.

“There are also services related to education, like starting a ‘trans school’ for waria adolescents, and programs for elderly waria like mobile clinics and food aid,” Ibu Shinta told VOA. “Complete, right? We pray that it works out.”

On its last anniversary, the school organized a free health clinic with a local doctor that was attended by 76 people.

The Transgender Care program currently operates in eight provinces, and Ibu Shinta said an effort to “map” all its participants and services across Indonesia is an eventual goal.

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Ibu Shinta (in green) and other waria gather for evening prayers at the Al-Fatah school in Yogyakarta. (K. Varagur/VOA)

Study group

Al-Fatah’s main scholastic activity is a weekly study group that meets on Sunday evenings, where waria can pray together, discuss Islamic theology, and practice reading the Quran in Arabic.

On a recent Sunday, there were six waria present, including Ibu Shinta; she said there are about 42 members in total, but the weekly attendance fluctuates between seven and 25. A local university student helped Yuni Shara al-Buchory read some Quran verses. When the evening call to prayer sounded, they filed into the reception room to pray. Ibu Shinta and Yuni Shara put on satin mukenas, women’s prayer dresses, and the others came as they were.

“I felt lost for the four months the school was closed, without a place to study religion,” said Yuni Shara. “I would go into town to hang out, work, buy snacks, and eventually I would wonder: there is something missing, but what?” During that time it was like, she said, her life was incomplete.

But it would be wrong to paint al-Fatah as merely a place for quiet study; after all, its students aren’t teenagers like in an ordinary pesantren, but working adults. The remaining six days a week, and even after hours on Sundays, it’s a community hub for Yogyakarta waria. They watch movies, cook and eat together, and swap gossip on each other’s clients.

It’s a deep well of normalcy for a group that occupies an increasingly uncertain societal space. Granted, in Yogyakarta, that space is safer than elsewhere in Indonesia — even the region’s sultan called on the community to respect the waria at the height of last year’s anti-gay hysteria.

Optimistic outlook

Today, Ibu Shinta is “not at all concerned” about local Islamists. She is focused on building up warias’ social safety net as well as her own school. Al-Fatah does not fundraise, but Ibu Shinta does ask researchers and students to donate about $15 when they visit.

ALSO READ India becoming more Transgender- Friendly: Read this report

There is rising community goodwill again, with Ibu Shinta pointing out that last year her school received one goat as a donation on Eid al-Adha (the holy annual “Sacrifice Feast” when animals are ceremonially slaughtered and shared, and this year they received two.

“Waria and other trans women constructions or phenomena have been around for a very long time,” said Dede Oetomo, a prominent LGBT rights activist based in East Java. “Most Indonesians know about them, and have at least tolerated them if not accepted them fully, especially if they are not in their own families.”

“We are survivors,” said Ibu Shinta. “When there were attacks on and discrimination against us, it made us want to fight.” (VOA)

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Pakistan’s First Transgender News Anchor

"There is a lot of difference between the pre- and post-March 23 Marvia. It had to happen. The change had to come,"

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Marvia Malik, Pakistan's first transgender news anchor. VOA

Washington, March 25 TV viewers in Pakistan, on March 23, saw something they had never seen before —a transgender anchor presenting the news in prime time.

Despite this giant leap, Marvia Malik, the first and only transgender news anchor in the country, said the difficulties faced by people like her in Pakistan are far from over.

“I am a journalism degree holder, but I faced the same difficulties [as] the transgender people who simply beg or dance in the streets,” Malik told VOA in a phone interview.

ALSO READ: A Tale of Resilience and Courage: India’s First Transgender Judge Joyita Mondal

transgender, lgbt, news anchor
In a country such as Pakistan, it is common to mock transgender people, who are expected to earn their livelihood mainly by dancing, begging or working in the sex trade. Pixabay

The most daunting task for them is getting a respectable job. But Malik said if more entrepreneurs and businesses showed more courage in breaking the social taboos as her employer, “Kohenoor News,” things can change.

“Like other trans people, I did not get any support from my family.On my own, I did some menial jobs and continued my studies. I had always wanted to be a news anchor, and my dream came true when I got selected,” she said.

Junaid Ansari, owner of the TV station, told VOA that Malik was not selected because the station wanted to make a point about breaking taboos. Ansari said he instructed his team to make the selection on the basis of merit and not gender.

ALSO READ: Here’s why Being a Transgender is the biggest regret in Pakistan

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“We had asked aspiring news presenters to come for the auditions. I got a call from one of my team members who said that one of the applicants was a transgender,” Ansari said. Pixabay

There was some pushback from his team, but Ansari stuck to his decision.

“They are human beings, too, and they should be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. I purely made the decision on the basis of treating all humans equally.The thought of challenging the social norms or breaking taboos did not even come to my mind,” Ansari said.

Ansari said feedback regarding Malik’s hiring has been mostly positive, though the station has received some negative feedback.

ALSO READ: Is US military looking forward to recruiting transgender people?

transgender, lgbt, news anchor
In Pakistan’s Twittersphere and other social media platforms, people are praising Malik’s selection, calling it a step in the right direction. Pixabay

Earlier this month, Pakistan’s Senate approved a bill for the protection of transgender rights. The bill asked the government to ensure employment opportunities and easy installment loans for transgender people.

According to the 2017 census, there are over 10,000 transgender people in Pakistan, a number some people say is much higher.

In the meantime, Malik is enjoying her instant fame.

“There is a lot of difference between the pre- and post-March 23 Marvia. It had to happen. The change had to come,” she said. VOA