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Indonesian transsexual Islamic school hopes to change perceptions

Although homosexuality is not unlawful in Indonesia, gay, lesbian and transgender Muslims are often unwelcome in mosques and Islamic schools. A transsexual hairdresser has responded by creating a safe haven in her salon.

Miriyani holds up a photo of herself from her days in the underbelly of Indonesia

Mariyani took a long route to Islam and to personal peace

On a quiet alley in the ancient Javanese city of Yogyakarta, a hairdressing salon is being transformed into place of worship in time for the call to evening prayers.

Mirrors are hidden behind embroidered drapes, prayer rugs are spread over the carpet and copies of the Koran take the place of fashion magazines.

Transsexual hairdresser Mariyani, who runs the salon, brings boxes of food inside in preparation for an evening of prayer and thanksgiving.

"Tonight we are praying with 90 orphans and poor women from a nearby village. It's my 50th birthday today and I want to thank God for giving me that time on earth," Mariyani told Deutsche Welle. "I will be called by God in the not too distant future so I have to do the right thing."

A woman of her own mind

People bent over in prayer

The unconventional school has quite a following

Mariyani was abandoned at birth and adopted by a poor Roman Catholic family in Yogyakarta. Even as a young child she preferred playing with girl's toys and says she always knew she had the heart and spirit of a woman. Aged 13, she left home and moved to the capital, Jakarta.

"I went straight to a church and got a cleaning job at a nunnery," she said. "It was there that they started calling me 'Miss', and that filled my heart with joy."

In a simple long dress, a headscarf and no make-up, Mariyani looks like a typical Indonesian housewife. But photos around the salon show her in slinky clothing and heavy make-up.

She started dressing like a woman at the age of 20, but after her boyfriend married a woman, she was so broken-hearted that she entered the dark night world to meet other transsexuals.

"I sold my body on the street to survive. I traveled across Indonesia working in the popular transsexual beats. It was so I could survive. I sold myself for less than 10 cents; that was the price back then."

"Path of God"

Mariyani and other transsexuals

Mariyani has created a safe haven for transsexuals and gay Muslims

Now as then, transgender, or Waria as they are known in Indonesian, have limited job opportunities. Those who have come to Mariyani's place to pray either work as prostitutes, busk or work in salons like hers.

"Being a transsexual is not a choice," she said, adding that if it were, she would not have opted to be one. "But that's what God decided for me so I accept this and thank God for that."

When she was young, she had little interest in living a good life, but as she got older, she realized she was on the wrong track. She saved enough money to open her salon and returned, as she puts it, "to the path of God."

By that time she had converted to Islam, which as a transsexual meant she ran the risk of being dubbed sinful and dirty by Muslim leaders, including the Ulemna Council, Indonesia's top Muslim clerical body. But she says that prospect did not make her reconsider her commitment to Islam.

"Even though some Ulemnas say our prayers will not be answered, that we are not accepted by God, I believe we have every right as humans to pray," she said. "We are not praying to be 'healed' or turned back into men. No! Praying is our business with God not with other humans."

Healing effects

Transgender worshippers having a meal after prays at the transgender mosque

Antipathy towards Muslim transsexuals is on the rise in Indonesia

It is this belief which led her to set up the Islamic school in the back of her salon. One evening a week for the past two years, homosexuals and transgender Muslims have been coming here to practice their faith in peace. The school is unique in Indonesia and now attracts Islam's outcasts from all over the country.

Wulan is a 45-year-old transsexual who works with an HIV/AIDS help group and sometimes earns money from prostitution. She goes to the school to learn from the Koran.

"Before I came here I went through a period where I didn't feel I was clean enough to worship," she said, adding that working as a prostitute made her feel dirty. "But after I started coming there was a change in me; I feel I am worthy of praying and it gives me a calm, peaceful feeling."

Misplaced perceptions

While Indonesia largely practices a moderate form of Islam, in recent years there has been a trend towards a more hard-line interpretation. The Ulemna Council has declared homosexuality evil, and gays and transsexuals have become targets for vigilante groups.

But Yanti Syaganti, head of the Indonesia's Transgender Organization, says it is all a problem of perception, and that the Ulemna Council has got it factually wrong.

"During the time of the Prophet Muhammad there were transsexuals," she said. "The Ulemna Council is made up of humans who always make claims in the name of religion. It's wrong and it's a bigoted small-minded perspective."

Novi and a friend in the school

Novi hopes the school will help change perceptions

The salon, by contrast, is a place for diversity and tolerance. One of the faithful is Novi. She has lacquered finger-nails and long black hair but tonight she is praying as a man wearing a green sarong and white shirt. She says she feels more comfortable praying as a man but during the day, and in her heart she is a woman.

She hopes the little Islamic school will help to prove to the general public that transsexuals are not bad, but are people with skills who can contribute to society.

"We can dance and do make-up but we can also teach the Koran," Novi said. "God sees what is inside us and hears our prayers; he doesn't care about what's on the outside."

Reporter: Rebecca Henschke / tkw

Editor: Sarah Steffen

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