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Indonesia: School for Transvestite Muslims Forced to Close

Kusumasari Ayuningtyas
Yogyakarta
2016-03-18
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Shinta Ratri (wearing hijab), an Indonesian transvestite , answers questions at her home in Yogyakarta, Central Java, March 16, 2016.
Shinta Ratri (wearing hijab), an Indonesian transvestite , answers questions at her home in Yogyakarta, Central Java, March 16, 2016.
Kusumasari Ayuningtyas/BenarNews

Almost a month has passed since Nurya Ayu has received any orders for her food business, forcing her to live off her meager savings.

Nurya, who is known as Nur, belongs to a community of 300 transvestites who live in the Central Javanese city of Yogyakarta.

Until Feb. 24, she studied at Al Fatah, Indonesia’s only pesantren – or Islamic school – for transvestites, but she said her catering business has suffered since the school was forced to close on that day because of opposition from a hardline Muslim group, the Islamic Jihadist Front (FJI).

“We are transvestites, but we also have a religion and a right to exercise our religion safely and comfortably,” Nur, who used to cook for the students at the school, told BenarNews.

Nur (pictured below) still lives with three other transvestites in a house that served as a venue for the pesantren, until the school’s closure. She feels uncomfortable with worshipping at other mosques in the area because she is afraid about how other people might react, said Nur, who first recognized that she was a transvestite in 1982, when she was 14 years old.

The school’s closure has occurred amid a growing wave of homophobia and hostility toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

Al Fatah closed soon after the nation’s most influential clerical body, the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI), issued a fatwa stating that it is a crime for people to engage in same-sex, bisexual or transgender activities.

Homosexuality is not outlawed in Indonesia – except in Aceh province, where Sharia law is enforced. Last year, the council issued another fatwa saying that people who engaged in “vile” or “deviant” acts should face the death penalty.

In February, Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu further stoked anti-LGBT sentiment by telling Tempo magazine that gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people were “a proxy threat” to national security.

“[LGBT is dangerous, our enemies are invisible,” the minister told Tempo.

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One-of-a-kind school

Al Fatah was founded in 2008 in another part of Yogyakarta by another transgender Muslim, Maryani, who ran the school out of her rented house.

About 42 transgender people who lived in Yogyakarta came every Monday and Thursday to take classes about Islam. Unlike a traditional pesantren, which is a boarding school, most of the students at Al Fatah students went home after classes.

Maryani died in 2014. The school stopped until Shinta Ratri took over the pesantren and relocated it to her house on the other side of town.

But the classes became less frequent, and Shintra eventually limited them to once a week on Sundays.

The activities would start before 3 p.m., followed by Asr, the afternoon prayer. A Quran lesson and a short letter reading session led to Maghrib, the after-sunset prayer. That was followed by Dhikr, the silent recital of prayers, until the time for evening prayers which continued with dinner. The evenings would end with members telling each other about their experiences.

“We use this [sharing] to find solutions to questions and problems we face,” Shinta, who is a transvestite, told BenarNews.

A special place

Shinta said she decided to take over the school because she realized that transvestites were confused about Muslim worship practices, which call for the segregation of the sexes during prayer services.

Her goal was to create a special space that would offer guidance about Islam to members of marginalized groups, such as trans-genders and people with disabilities. She consulted with at least 10 Islamic scholars.

“I was not just looking for support or votes in favor, but also was eager to learn from those who disagree,” she said.

Seeking a new – and safe – venue

Although the pesantren has closed and its religious activities and classes have stopped, Shinta is trying to find a new venue for housing the school.

“What I’m looking for is not only a place, but also security for me and my friends because a lot of them are traumatized,” Shinta said.

She could not understand why the surrounding community in her neighborhood decided to close the pesantren, because relations with the neighbors had been good, she said.

But Jati Bayubroto, the leader of Banguntapan sub-district, said that many residents had complained about the existence of the transgender pesantren over the last year, and complaints had intensified in recent months.

“People still cannot accept that such a community was gathered there,” Jati told BenarNews.

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