Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Wari

Wari. It is the word used to refer to Indonesian transvestites. The word has its roots in the Indonesian words for woman (wanita) and man (pria). I was first introduced to Wari through an article in Vice Magazine. I enjoyed the article so much I wanted to share it with you all.

However, before you clink on Vice’s link, a disclaimer is warranted: Vice is explicit and raw. A friend calls it tripe – something, especially speech or writing, that is false or worthless; rubbish. Please resist the urge to write-off Hannah Brooks’s article because it appears in Vice. Although Warias, Come Out And Plaayayay: Muslim Indonesian Transvestites are Persecuted but Beautiful is arguably as raw and explicit as the magazines’ content, Brooks gives the reader a rare opportunity to meet real people with complex issues that we would otherwise never have the privilege to meet. The intricacies of the people in her article are not hidden behind the formalities of a politically correct interview or writing style. Rather, Brooks uses the informality of her writing to recreate her interactions with the wari and honor who they are.

Before discussing what I found interesting about the article, it will be helpful to clarify key terms: transvestite and transgender. A transvestite is an individual who cross dresses, but are comfortable with the gender assigned to them at birth. Transgendered refers to an individual who has Gender Identity Disorder. Brooks never explains the distinction, which is extremely important to the identity of the wari.

Transvestites are nothing new. So neither are Wari. They suffer the same social ills as other transvestites: discrimination (as Brooks was informed, some cemeteries have a policy of excluding waris), violence (many wari make a living through prostitution, and unfortunately violence is a real possibility), and health concerns (HIV rates are high because “prostitution, scarcity of and lack of education about condoms, and lack of access to drugs needed to contain the virus” run ramped in the wari community).

However, I was unfamiliar with was the particularities of the wari’s plight, specifically the intense clash many experience between their identity and their religion. Wari push gender norms, which challenges the fundamental practices and beliefs of Islam. Yet, many wari are practicing Muslims. To learn more about the wari, Brooks visits a school for Islamic studies specifically tailored for the wari in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

The school was founded by Maryani, “a mountain-size transsexual who eats with the ferocity of a man just released from a POW camp but applies eyeliner better than any woman” Brooks ever met. The school is called Senin-Kamis, which refers to the two days of the week the school is in session: Monday and Thursday. Senin-Kamis provides waris a safe place to pray. During prayer, Muslims are segregated by gender. Although wari can attend prayers as either men or women, participating in prayer as a female is not all that easy. While visiting Indonesia for the piece, Brooks met only one wari who attend prayer as a man. The others refrain from doing so because it makes them uncomfortable. A wari’s identity pushes the boundaries of gender, which in turn pushes them from their practice. Senin-Kamis provides waris a place to practice their religion free of negativity, and also serves as a safe haven and place to gather.

Brooks’s observation of the wari “beautification” was also a point of intense interest for me. In addition to clothing and make-up, Brooks found that the distinctive wari look is “magnified by silicone injections to their faces and breasts.” They do it because they want a more “softer, feminine” look. Younger wari claim older wari get boob jobs to increase their sex appeal. The face and breast jobs, and the stated reasons are not what shock me. What shocks me is the procedure itself. Brooks was allowed to observe a wari get silicon breast injections. Her description was unsettling to me. The breast injection takes place in a boiling, unsterilized room … A glass jar of wobbly silicone appears along with ten thick syringes. Then a pair of anonymous hands performs the job with the confidence of someone who’s done this many times before. Even so, some of the syringes get stuck or clogged as the silicone is injected, and it takes a fair amount of force to push the stopper through. There are no bags: The silicone is forced straight under the skin.”

My initial response is a first-world response: “What!?! No gloves!?! No sterile room!?! STRAIGHT UNDER THE SKIN!?!” I understand these women are working with limited resources and procedures such as these are not necessarily at the top of their priority list. However, my heart is wounded by how these women are hurting their health because of their limited resources.

When Brooks asked Maryani if she would get a sex change, I was somewhat startled by her response. She believes that “she doesn’t have the right to change what God has given her.” Maryani’s response leaves me speechless. On one level, I understand what Maryani is saying: she believes God gave her certain things for a reason. What I cannot even begin to wrap my head around is the internal conflict (and the accompanying dialogue) arising from (1) believing you are a woman in a man’s body, and (2) believing that you should not change what God has given you, which happens to be the exact opposite of what you believe yourself to be. The spiritual strength and perseverance women like Maryani exhibit in their daily existence is breathtaking.

After reading Maryani’s response, I found it interesting that the Iran government has subsidized sex changes in an effort to prevent the sin of man on man sex. For example, in 1997 Maryam Hatoon Molkara received assistance from the Iran government to obtain a sex change. The New York Times article also touches upon how the Iran government has slowly opened up to the notion of sex changes.

In searching for more information on wari, I found an article by Prodita Sabarini informative. Lastly, keep your eyes out for Tales of the Wari, a documentary that is to be released soon. Although the film is no yet released, I strongly suggest checking out the trailer or the director, Kathy Huang, discussing the film for more insight into the lives of the waris.

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