Born to Be a Woman of God

December 22, 2008
Ade Mardiyati

On a dreary morning in Yogyakarta, in a brick house, some 10 meters from the main road in Gedong Tengen, Notoyudan hamlet, an 8-year-old girl is folding yellow paper napkins with a friend. They work slowly, whispering comments about boys and giggling as they form perfect little paper triangles.

“Mom, how many of these napkins should I cut and fold?” the 8-year-old calls out to a woman wearing a long-sleeved black shirt and Muslim headscarf.

“Make it 40,” the woman answers. “There will be a lot of people coming today.”

The girl’s mother, Mariyani, is a transvestite.

In July, Mariyani established Indonesia’s first pesantren for transvestites.

By definition a pesantren is an Islamic boarding school. Mariyani uses the word pointedly, to improve her school’s credibility with the public as a place of learning.

The school is called Senin-Kamis, or Monday-Thursday, as the group previously gathered twice a week.

Now there are only Sunday sessions as few of the group’s 15 members — who include non-Muslims and homosexuals ­— can afford to travel to Gedong Tengen more than once a week.
A typical session starts at 5 p.m. and does not end until after dawn prayers.

It includes a discussion led by a cleric and a special after-midnight prayer (extra prayers confer a greater reward in Islam).

Mariyani takes out sponge cake and spring rolls from small plastic bags, arranging them on plates for her guests.

Every 15 minutes or so she goes to check on a chicken curry that a neighbor is stirring in the kitchen.

Born 48 years ago as a male, and named Maryono by her adoptive parents, Mariyani feels grateful for all that she has — especially her daughter.

She has loved her little girl from the moment she first saw her in the hospital, an hour after she was born.

“I had heard there was a woman who was about to give birth but didn’t want the baby,” Mariyani says.

“I rushed to the hospital to see if I had a chance of taking the baby.”

Mariyani says she felt truly blessed when the woman agreed to allow her to adopt the baby.
She named the baby girl Rizki Ariyani.

Rizki, or rezeki, means blessing in Islam, or fortune in Indonesian.

“She is my biggest fortune and blessing,” says Mariyani, who a year later completed all the paperwork to make the adoption legal.

“When I die, my entire inheritance will go to her,” she says. Mariyani says she would do anything for Kiki (Rizki’s nickname) — anything but to make an appearance at her school.

She says she usually asks her adoptive father or a neighbor to attend parent-teacher conferences.

“I can’t do that on my own,” Mariyani says.

“I don’t want her to be the laughing stock of her friends for having a transvestite mother.”

For a child of her age, Mariyani says, Kiki is an amazing girl.

“When they [friends at school] mock her, she will say ‘Yes, my mother is a transvestite. So what? It doesn’t matter as long as she feeds me and I can survive,’ ” Mariyani says of her daughter.

She says she wants a better, more dignified life for her daughter.

At the age of 15, Mariyani moved out of her home in Pathuk, Yogyakarta.

Independent of parental supervision, she was finally able to dress as a woman.

In the next five years, Mariyani took a job as a cook in a convent and fell in love with a man, who later left her for a “real” woman, she says.

After dabbling in love unsuccessfully, Mariyani turned to sex work. She traveled and worked in the big cities of Java, including Taman Lawang red-light district in Central Jakarta, which is notorious for its transvestite prostitutes.

But after five years, she found herself at a crossroads in her life.

“I asked myself whether I could live like that forever,” Mariyani says.

She was earning money as a busker when her neighbor, a Muslim cleric, began to teach her about Islam.

Mariyani started attending a Koran study group. The group had 100 members but she was the only transvestite. So she decided to form a Koran study group for transvestites.

“We transvestites are also humans who want to know and be closer to God,” says Mariyani, who was raised as a Catholic by her adoptive parents.

With the full support of her transvestite community, Mariyani contacted a local Islamic foundation to ask it to send clerics to teach the transvestites.

Twenty-five clerics now take turns teaching at the pesantren.

However, Mariyani’s efforts to bring her community closer to God have been met with cynicism and ridicule from some other Muslims.

“They say we are najis [defiling God] and haram [forbidden under Islamic law] and should not pray to God,” Mariyani says.

“But I believe that God is the only one who can judge us,” she says.

“I don’t understand. They curse us for doing bad things like being a prostitute, but they also curse us when we try to be righteous.”

At 4:45 p.m., a cleric arrives at Mariyani’s place, followed by some transvestites. Mariyani stands up to greet them. One of them tells her some of the other members can’t come.

Mariyani also receives a text-message apology. However, she does not seem disappointed.

“I understand they are busy preparing things with their families for Idul Adha [day of sacrifice] tomorrow,” she says.

“And there are also some friends who have to work to earn money.”

At six, the intensive session of prayer, Koran recital and discussion begins.

An imam, or Muslim leader, leads the group in the fourth of the five prayers that Muslims are obliged to perform five times a day.

Mariyani and her two friends wear rukuh, or Islamic scarf sets. Another transvestite wears the sarong and brimless hat worn by many Muslim men.

When the prayer is finished, the students learn to read the Koran.

When Mariyani takes her turn, Kiki observes her closely.

“No, mommy, that’s not how you pronounce it. It should be kho,” she says.

Mariyani smiles and runs her fingers through her daughter’s hair.

“She’s a smart kid,” Mariyani says.

The fifth prayer follows the study session.

The women put on their scarf sets and stand behind the men. Today’s theme is “the will of God.”

“When Allah wills it, anything can happen,” says the cleric.

“Even if the whole universe hates you and intends to hurt you, it won’t happen if Allah doesn’t allow it to.”

A heated discussion ensues. Mariyani’s eyes brighten at seeing her friends engaged in discussion.

Mariyani has just put Kiki to sleep when some more transvestites come to the house at around 10:30 p.m.

Some work for nongovernmental organizations, others are buskers and prostitutes.

On Sundays, the sex workers take a day off. They devote the time to God.

“Some of my friends are still involved in sex work, but they are welcome here,” Mariyani says.

Mariyani now earns her living as a wedding hairdresser and makeup artist, as well as taking catering orders for special events in her neighborhood.

“I am not telling them to quit their jobs, I have no right to do so,” she says.

“But I do hope Allah will show them the way.”

It is almost dawn when the group again joins together in prayer.

Everyone goes home to rest and prepare for the holy day of sacrifice.

“I feel very peaceful now being close to God, unlike before,” Mariyani says.

“And my life is complete with Kiki in it,” says Mariyani, who has been married — witnessed only by family and friends as same-sex marriage is illegal in Indonesia — three times, but each marriage ended in separation.

“I truly understand that my husbands wanted to have children with the woman they married — and I can never fulfill that wish,” she says.

“So I let them go.”

Mariyani says that she does not want to change anything that God has given her.

“Some of my friends had an operation to be a woman [physically], but I don’t feel the need to do that,” she says.

“I do realize that I have the body of a man, but my soul is not a man’s,” Mariyani says. “I am a woman.”

‘I believe that God is the only one who can judge us’

Mariyani, head of a Koran
study group for transvestites
Marto Wiyadi, 75, Mariyani’s father

“My wife and I adopted Mariyani when she was just four days old,” Marto says.

“We had been married for five years but had no children.”

It was clear from early on that Mariyani did not identify herself as a boy.

She would throw away the boys’ toys her parents gave her and ask for dolls instead.

“Because she was our only child and we really loved her, we gave her whatever she wanted,” Marto says.

“As parents, we talked to her about how we thought she was supposed to behave,” he says.

“But then I thought maybe this was what God wanted her to be. I wasn’t sad or angry.”

Marto says Mariyani is a good person and a responsible mother.

“She did not even finish primary school but she has gotten to know important people [in the media, for example],” says Marto, who later took Mariyani’s biological mother as his second wife and later had a son with her.

“I am proud of Mariyani,” he says.

Shinta Ratri, 47, friend

For Shinta, Mariyani is a super woman.

“I don’t think I could do for others what she has done for us [transvestites],” she says.

“She cares a lot about other people.”

Ratri, who was a sex worker before she began making the jewelry worn by Javanese brides, says the pesantren has helped her find peace in life.

“Everyone has a need for pray, to ‘meet’ God so that they don’t feel empty inside,” she says. Ratri says once, when support for the pesantren was wavering, Mariyani came to her for advice.

“She feels sad when her friendships are not solid,” Ratri says. “She wants us to help each other.”

Maria Alda Novika, 30, friend

“I feel very comfortable here. I can pray wearing a Muslim scarf set,” Novika says.

“They might not let me in other places.”

Although she still does sex work at night, Novika always finds time to attend the pesantren. “I have become more inward looking, more centered,” says Novika, who works in a beauty salon.

Mariyani, she says, has helped her by bringing her closer to God. “My faith has become even stronger.”

Having learned a lot from going to the pesantren every week, Novika has formed a new plan: “I will quit my night job [as a prostitute] and develop my career in the beauty business,” she says.

Tini, 43, neighbor

“Everyone in the neighborhood loves and respects Bu Mar,” Tini says. “She is a generous person who is always ready to help.”

Mariyani is glad to help those who would like to hire a makeup artist for a family wedding but can’t afford it. She will not ask them to pay, Tini says. She says most Muslims in her neighborhood support the pesantren.

“They [transvestites] want to pray to God, too, like us,” Tini says.

Tini hopes Mariyani’s pesantren will stand the test of time, despite the cynical comments that come from those who are against it, such as that a transvestite’s prayers would never be heard by God.

“It is a very good thing that they are doing,” Tini says. “They should not judge them, [they should] leave it to Allah.”


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