A safe space for Indonesia’s transgender Muslims

Yogya, Indonesia — For transgender people in Indonesia, pondok pesantren waria Al Fatah serves as a beacon, a safe space and a school. For members of Front Jihad Islam, however, the Muslim boarding school is a radical place that poses a threat to their community they’re demanding the government eliminate. Which group will win?

Al Fatah’s many missions are not always in sync with one another. As a beacon, it calls out to transgender Muslims from all corners of Indonesia who are experiencing persecution to flee to safety. As a safe space, Al Fatah (Arabic for “the young women”) allows a wide degree of freedom in dress, behavior and piety. As a pesantren (Muslim boarding school), the leadership urges students to rediscover their faith, return to ritual prayer and read the Qur’an.

Based in the middle of Indonesia, Al Fatah has been forced to move a couple times after protests from hardline Muslim groups. These days, the pesantren is located in a back alley of a neighborhood called Kota Gede, an older part of town famous for its silverworks. It has always been based somewhere in Yogyakarta, a centuries-old sultanate with a reputation for progressive politics and pluralist practices of Islam.

The last time the leadership was confronted by an angry mob was in February 2016. Back then, the pesantren was located in a part of town called Bantul. The protestors purported not to be harassing the waria (or transgender people, a portmanteau derived from the Indonesian words for woman—“WAnita”—and man—“pRIA”), but coming to clarify the laws of Islam regarding the existence of transgender people. The leader of Front Jihab Islam, Abdurahman, made clear that his group did not oppose Al Fatah’s existence as long as it makes its members repent.[1]

Forced repentance is clearly not Al Fatah’s mission, and the school won’t be forcibly converting transgender people (back) into mainstream Islam any time soon. Indeed, it can’t—doing so would be inarguably against Islamic law.

The right to exist as a transgender person is surprisingly uncontroversial in Islamic law. Muslims believe Allah created all people, and that those born between genders are also Allah’s children.

There is law, and then there is social practice. In fact, in Indonesia, as around the world, many communities are not tolerant of trans existence. But where a door closes, a window opens: for all who live in closed and oppressive parts of Indonesia, Al Fatah openly invites them to be safe, to be themselves and to be able to mend their broken souls.

If mending and being does not imply repentance, what does religious practice look like in this space? Al Fatah presents itself to the world as a Muslim school. What is being taught there, and how does instruction seek to synergize faith and gender identities? Do the teachers make people whole or privilege one part of themselves over others? Were gender-queer individuals getting closer to their Islamic faith here in Kota Gede?

Community members have suggested this pesantren is a radical place. Indonesia’s democratic government, being of, for and by the people, has held hearings, denied human rights activists from attending them, and found Al Fatah at fault. But in a country where bureaucracy moves slowly if at all, the school leadership bravely keeps doors open to transgender people, journalists, community members and educators like me. My visit makes me hopeful that the school’s radical mission to keep oppressed minorities safe will continue to be effective, but also worried that the façade will eventually fail them.

Finding Al Fatah

Shinta Ratri is currently the head of Al Fatah

Shinta Ratri currently serves as the head of Al Fatah. She has told me to wait for her in front of the barbershop on the right side of Soka road. When I arrive, I find that Soka is more of a dimly lit alley, and the barbershop, located a 15-minute walk into it, sits under one of only a few streetlights.

The main road at the end of Soka is dotted by displays of shiny silver, but these back streets are crowded with dark, dull older homes. They show their age, but command a certain respect. Like the people who inhabit them, these buildings have proven welcoming to people of all walks of life.

The residents of this neighborhood have made little fuss about Al Fatah relocating here. When I first heard about the pesantren, I was in America, and by the time I started my ICWA fellowship, hardline Muslims had succeeded in appealing to city officials to shut the space down.[1] Their multiple protests and closed meetings with the community board managed to achieve their ends even though the Al Fatah leadership had been guaranteed protection by the local police.[2] When the beacon itself sought safe space, Kota Gede did not turn them away. I greet everyone I meet warmly.

After retracing my steps, I see Shinta across the street from the barbershop typing on her phone as she waits for me. She is wearing a matronly navy blue dress and vest, and her head is covered with a silver jilbab (Islamic head covering).

Although Shinta grew up in this neighborhood, she doesn’t know her neighbors too well. Now in her early 50s, she is nearly my height (I’m 6’2”), and has broader shoulders than I. She has strong facial features and soft eyes. The curvatures of her nose suggest she is no stranger to violence.

Shinta was one of three people who founded the pesantren in 2008, and it still exists largely due to the strength of her will and demeanor. She faced down the Front Jihad Islam protestors, she is the person who repeatedly risks media exposure to clarify Al Fatah’s purpose, and she is responsible for building ties with ustadz (Muslim teachers) in town who helped write the school’s curriculum and facilitate learning here still today. She is not alone in protecting and cultivating the space, but she certainly has the highest profile.

Before the protests and temporary closure, the Al Fatah community was some 40 souls strong. On the day of my first visit, however, only five other people are present, two of them students from the local university, meaning there are as many visitors as residents. It is a Thursday, and on this first visit, I learn that Al Fatah no longer provides permanent residence or weekly classes for students. Once people who have fled from inhospitable corners of the country make their way here, they are granted temporary sanctuary while local members of the community find them jobs and somewhere to stay. They are then invited to attend Sunday school, which now serves as the nexus for the Al Fatah family.

Sunday school

The following Sunday, I return to Al Fatah to observe the evening’s events. People are sitting around and chatting on the back porch when I arrive, but when the call to prayer sounds, everyone heads inside for maghrib (sunset) prayers.

All of them are adults, and when I ask Shinta about that, she clarifies that this pesantren is nontraditional in another respect as well—although it is theoretically willing to receive applicants of any age, in practice hosting minors would be too risky. The school’s political position is too embattled as it is.

As on Thursday, about half of the people here are observers, evident by skin tone and those who don’t join in prayer. When I speak with a friend who regularly frequents this community a few days afterward, I learn that there are almost always as many wartawan (journalists) as waria in attendance. That provides a layer of protection for the community, but also means that in addition to its other roles, Al Fatah functions as something of a tourist trap. I wonder how that affects its ability to serve as a safe space.

When Muslims pray, the oldest man usually acts as the imam (leader), and all men stand in front of all women. At Al Fatah, where people are free to present and perform their genders as they wish, congregants can stand where they want and dress however they wish, but there is an expectation that they will perform one gender consistently, even if it is not the same as they might perform outside of prayer periods. Shinta chooses to stand behind the men, as she presents and identifies as a woman. Another of my conversational partners, who goes by the initials “YS” and generally presents as a woman, wears a sarong and moves to the front for prayers because even though he identifies as a woman, he is physically a man and feels that should determine his placement and presentation in prayer. For the rest of the evening, however, YS wears a halter top with spaghetti straps.

 

Sitting with my transgender conversational partners, Shinta (left) and YS

After completing the prayers, a local cis-gender (“straight,” but that loaded term should be dropped from use) ustadz (Muslim religious teacher) begins a lesson on Islamic living. Ustadz Arif Nuh Safri is one of 10 teachers who routinely volunteer here, and when I asked him afterward about what teaching he typically does here, he says topics include the correct way to pray, how to read the Al Qur’an, and other introductory lessons about Islam. He tries to keep discussions light, inviting and engaging, as he knows that some members of the community have always been kept at bay from their parents’ faith

Arif grew up in North Sumatra (an island in western Indonesia) and the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) religious tradition, one of the two most popular Sunni Islam movements in Java (another island in Indonesia). NU, which has been heralded as an “Anti-ISIS” by The New York Times,[1] has a reputation for being both conservative and tolerant, which may seem vexing to many in the West. I’m not surprised to find that many of the ustadz who affiliate with Al Fatah rose out of the NU tradition, but when I ask Arif about his connections to the network, he says he now considers himself more of an independent.

Arif Nuh Safri served as the imam at a recent weekly educational session at pesantren

He got involved here several years ago because he believes Islam is for everyone, and that Allah is capable of judging our deeds without any help from us—which means his charge as a teacher of Islam is not to judge anyone else, but to exemplify the good-heartedness and open-mindedness of Islam to everyone, even members of the Al Fatah community.

The official curriculum of Al Fatah

In addition to being a teacher, Arif has long been a student of tafsir (transliteration and application of) Hadiths (observations on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, pbuh[2]). He spent a lot of time reading and transliterating Arabic text while in school. When I ask whether many of his classmates came to similar conclusions in their transliteration and application of Islamic text, he expresses concern that many Indonesian imams don’t spend much time reading the original texts.[3]

Because few of these texts have been translated into Indonesian, Arif contends that the information many ustadz share comes from the internet, and often has no scriptural basis. In effect, he is saying that his tolerance comes from Islam, and intolerance in Islam comes from monitors and televisions.

After a brief lecture, Arif opens the floor for a sharing session during which santri and santriwati (male and female pesantren students) can ask questions, talk about their lived experiences, and establish community. The discussion turns to tattoos. Ustadz Arif—perhaps the only person present who does not have any—politely but firmly states that they are indeed haram (not allowed in Islam).

YS proceeds to pull down her halter top to show off her ink, of a heart with black several black lines around it. The artist had expressed surprise, YS recounts, at how little she reacted throughout the process. She says she got her tattoo two years ago, which means she violated Islamic law after joining the Al Fatah community. I wonder how Arif and others feel about this rather blatant disregard for one of the expectations of the community, but then remember that many cis Muslims in Indonesia have tattoos, too. Hell, I have tattoos.

I’m not sure if Shinta has a tattoo, too. She returns to Arif’s teachings to ask whether tattoos might sometimes be okay, noting that they are acceptable in many cultures. Arif explains that sometimes religion confronts culture, but at other times it works with it. As an example, he summarizes Islamic laws on alcohol. At first, he says, alcohol and even drunkenness were acceptable except during prayer. Later, drunkenness was disallowed, but consumption was still okay. Finally, alcohol was declared haram.

I ask a few follow-up questions about the curriculum—who wrote it, what is included, who teaches it and how closely is it followed? Shinta indicates that Al Fatah focuses on (re)introducing students to the Islamic faith, then retrieves a book from a table at the far end of the room. It is a bound, official copy of Al Fatah’s curriculum.

In reviewing this book and discussing its origins with Shinta, I gather that it was written in collaboration with over 40 ustadz from various institutions throughout the city who have provided curricular and spiritual guidance to the Al Fatah community.

Just before Isya (the last of five prayers of the day for practicing Muslims), a few trays of food are brought out and we all eat together. The group prays together once again, marking the end of official activities.

After Isya, I excuse myself and say goodbyes. As I head out, I notice a poster on the wall I had not seen before that partly answers some of my remaining questions about Al Fatah.

 

Beacon, boarding house, Islamic school, tourist trap

Before visiting, I could think of reasons for both liberal and conservative people to be either for or against the existence of a community like Al Fatah.

Liberals might herald Al Fatah as a safe space for gender-queer people or oppose it for excluding transgendered people from the broader community, thereby making transgender personhood less recognizable, more “strange.” After my visits, it is clear to me that Al Fatah’s students were already excluded and the lighthouse that is Al Fatah has brought them to safe space.

Conservatives might find the teachings of Al Fatah disagreeable for somehow normalizing transgender identity or teaching deviant ideas about the Islamic faith, or support Al Fatah’s work for helping transgender individuals become better Muslims and live “purer” lifestyles. What I found was that a vocal minority of community members actively worries about the normalization of transgender lifestyles and the open invitation that brings more transgender people to their community, but that the teachings—which are open to all, opt-in and entry-level—are indeed aimed at helping those who wish to rediscover their faith.

So there is a beacon call pulling oppressed people to this space, and a curricular and pedagogic push for members of this community to get closer to their religion. But the members have the freedom to decide just how religious they would like to be. This push-and-pull may be the key to the community.

Those freedoms aren’t guaranteed, however. They are undersigned by the strength of leaders like Shinta Ratri, who have endured violence and ridicule and built connections and congregations in an effort to maintain their space. It is hard to say what their primary role is these days, but perhaps it is the flexibility enabling them to always keep open their doors to everyone who seeks spiritual guidance, and keep that one lightbulb on so those who seek safety can find their way.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/27/world/asia/indonesia-islam-nahdlatul-ulama.html

[2] “pbuh”, or peace be upon him (in Arabic, “SA”, or sallallahu alahi wasallam), is a tag placed behind any mention of the name of the Prophet Muhammad. I include this tag to show respect to him and my Muslim readers.

[3] All translations are my own, and are as true to the speakers’ intentions as the languages allow.

[1] http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/02/26/yogyakarta-transgender-islamic-boarding-school-shut-down.html

[2] http://www.bbc.com/indonesia/berita_indonesia/2016/02/160219_indonesia_pesantren_waria

[1] http://www.viva.co.id/berita/nasional/738007-pesantren-waria-didatangi-massa-ormas-front-jihad-islam

About the Author

Jonthon returns to Indonesia to explore the country’s educational spaces, which are increasingly affected by both foreign entrants and governmental decentralization. His particular focus is on the role education plays in the formation of identity, wherein Jonthon will examine how educational experiences lead religious and national identities to emerge, converge and diverge. In using education as a lens, Jonthon will look far beyond schools and schooling to the public pedagogies, endangered languages and subaltern knowledge that he hopes will offer others insight into “becoming-Indonesia.” The world’s fourth-most populous country (and largest population of Muslims in the world) remains a relatively unknown archipelagic nation that is changing rapidly—in ways that have implications for the regional and the global community. Jonthon has taken a leave of absence from his doctoral program at Columbia University Teachers College to accept the ICWA fellowship. He previously lived in Indonesia as a Fulbright Scholar and U.S. State Department English Language Fellow.