Lipstick, long hair, and lashes – in a crowded traditional market in Bireun, Aceh province, all eyes are on the figures of two transgender women. Some people who seem to know them smile, asking how they are doing civilly, but the rest do not hide their contempt, either giggling, smirking or directing hostile stares at them.
“He bencong, sini makan tempe!” (Hey, trannies! Come, eat some tempeh)
“Bencong! Sini kupotong-potong!” (Trannies, come here and I’ll cut you into pieces).
On their way to do some grocery shopping, the two keep walking, ignoring every mockery directed at them.
“They told me it is ‘haram’ to defy my ‘kodrat’,” said Lisa, one of the transwomen featured in Eye Lashes, a documentary on transgender in Aceh province.
“They stigmatize us, waria, that all of us must be selling sex, while it’s not always true. My parents said what a disappointment I was; and how they had struggled to put me in school, yet I turned into an embarrassment to the family.”
When director Tonny Trimarsanto shot the 60-minute documentary back in 2015, it was an attempt to document the state of transwomen in Aceh before the official implementation of Qanun Jinayat, the local legal code based on the sharia law. The film was screened recently on Nov. 6 at the National Commission on Violence against Women to advocate the issue and to engage local transgender women communities in the Greater Jakarta area.
Although it was set in Aceh, the movie had not been screened in the province, as there are concerns about the safety of the transgender communities there, said Yudi, who is in charge of education at LGBT advocacy organization Suara Kita.
“The film was shot two years ago. Right now, the situation has gotten worse in Aceh. That is why we have mixed feelings about the film being nominated in this year’s Indonesian Film Festival. We’re concerned about the safety of the community if this film gets more exposure,” he said.
The documentary depicts the myriad problems faced by transgender, including abuse by families, alienation from the society, discrimination by government officials, as well as financial difficulties due to limited job options.
One of the transwomen featured in the film, Dea, for instance, has been waiting for her state-issued ID card or KTP for nine years. Whenever she applied for a card, the officials always skipped her registration number without any clear explanation, saying that it was simply a technical error.
“It doesn’t make any sense. My family and I went for it together. All of them got their cards, but I didn’t – every time. When I asked about it, they told me my card is ‘missing’ somehow,” she said.
Dea and a few other transwomen own a beauty salon where they also live. It is both a sanctuary and the only place where they can earn a decent living, yet they still have difficulties obtaining a business permit from the local authority, particularly the sharia authority.
“Because we still don’t have a permit for the salon, we’ve been an easy target of raids. They often questioned us, ‘Why are you all living together in one place?’ Well, for one, it’s not an option. Here in Bireun, boarding houses won’t accept us. They only allow women or men to rent rooms, but not waria. They say we are of ‘ambiguous gender’ and ‘ambiguous gender is not accepted!’ We want people to know that we are not trash, we have skills,” she say.
And then there is the matter of the way they dress. Dea recalls being arrested once by the “Wilayatul Hisbah” sharia police: “I was with a friend, Citra. He came to us and asked, ‘You are men, dress like one! Or just let me give you options, if you want to be female, dress like a good Muslim woman!’”
“We were jailed until our friends came and brought us some headscarves. They let us out after we wore the headscarves,” she said.
Dea and her friends also occasionally get beaten up by family members they happen to meet on the street. “A friend’s older brother often kicked us, pulled our hair and yanked our clothes whenever he saw us. It was really bad a few years back though it eventually calmed down now.”
However, despite the discrimination and abuses, Dea and her other fellow transwomen say they can never leave Bireun because of the bonds they have established with the people around them.
“I can say that compared to others, my family is doing pretty well. When my father first figured out about my gender, he called a psychologist. The psychologist told him that I have too much of ‘mother genes’, and even if he beat me up or killed me, I would never be a ‘male’. That was how my parents learned to accept my condition. I can go home dressed as a woman. But not all of us can do this,” said Dea.
The documentary also shows Dea’s mother’s point of view: “No matter what, she is my flesh and blood. I cannot let her struggle by herself. Of course, it’s difficult; it’s a burden. But she is my child. I still pray to God, she would one day have a child, so that she would have somebody to take care of her when she’s old.”
The transgender women living in the salon have built bonds with their neighbors as well. They get invited to birthday parties, they play volley balls with local women, they can entrust the salon’s key to their neighbors whenever they have to leave town to attend fashion show competitions, community gathering, or others. One of their neighbors even expressed how fond she is of living near them.
“They usually buy some groceries and some cigarettes in my kiosk. They have been here for around six years now, but there has never been any conflict – ever. They are good kids. I feel like they are my own children,” said one of their neighbors.
Even the authorities sometimes come for their service at the salon.
“Some of the municipal police and Wilayatul Hisbah come regularly to get their hair cut. We would talk normally; they are nice to us, although sometimes a few of them told us, ‘I’m sure you’ll look even prettier with a hijab on’. We can only smile,” said Dea.
In the film, Dea also said how she supported the severe “Qanun Jinayat”, the provincial bylaw on the implementation of the sharia in Aceh that had since come into effect.
“Living as transgender in Aceh, we need to be strategic. This is the ‘Serambi Mekah’, almost everybody here is a Muslim. If Qanun Jinayat is to be implemented soon, we won’t oppose it.”
“We’ve been living here our whole lives. We were raised by Muslim families, in a Muslim society. We hope people won’t be prejudice against transwomen, judging us by our looks. We hope they won’t think of what we do as deviant behavior,” she added.
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