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 waria across 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.
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.
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.
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.”