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On Pesantren and Waria

Indonesia’s motto is Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, or Unity in Diversity, and was intended as a means of unifying an ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse archipelago of 17,000 islands (give or take a few depending on who you talk to), but to what extent is gender diversity celebrated? How do people navigate tensions between religion and non-binary gender? What aspects of Islam do people identify most with and what is life in an Islamic boarding school like? These are questions students explored through a guest lecture on waria (an Indonesia word derived from the words wanita (woman) and pria (man) and commonly translated as transgender), a visit to an Islamic boarding school, and watching the famous waria cabaret at Hamzah Batik.

Intersting facts:

  • In some Indonesian communities prior to the spread of monotheistic religions people who transcend gender were highly revered and were shamans or priests
  • LGBTQ is a western construct that has shifted how Indonesians perceive waria and results in marginalization
  • Since 2010 some people have pushed for the death penalty to be instituted as a punishment for sodomy
  • The LGBT and waria communities are not protected under Indonesian laws
  • Santri are students at Islamic boarding schools
  • The word santri comes from sanskrit and means a student of Hindu holy scriptures
  • Pesantran, or schools for santri, developed in the 13th century when the walisongo (9 saints of Islam in Java) blended local customs, arts, and rituals with Islamic teachings in order to teach communities about Islam
  • There are principles that guide students’ lives in a pesantren, one of which is tolerance and harmony
  • Students study classical Islamic scriptures and Arabic as well as national classes like math, science, Indonesian, English, and social studies
  • Students start their days at 3:30 am and go to bed at 10:00 pm
  • Students say they enjoy going to school at a pesantren because it teaches them to be independent as they cook, do their washing, and clean their dorms by themselves. They also feel they learn to be tolerant and have communal values which they hope to share with others.
  • They are proud to be Muslim because Islam teaches peace and tolerance of all people
  • Students talked to one another about shared interests in basketball, soccer, and Instagram

At the cabaret the audience was extremely diverse and included Indonesian hijabis, non-hijabis, and men (young and old) as well foreigners. Performers covered a range of artists including Whitney Houston, Nicki Minaj, Camila Cabello, Agnes Monica, and Siti Badriah. The audience was just as interesting as the performance since it flies in the face of all the assumptions we develop of what is means to be Muslim, what Muslims believe, and how Muslims interact with gender.

Let’s see what we learn or observe about these issues as we travel east!