You do two or two-and-a-half years in Java in which all you do is live with the people, write down everything, and try to figure out what the hell is going on...
Indonesia never ceases to amaze, surprise, and confuse me. Just when I think I'm getting the hang of things, slipping into a comfortable and understood routine, or, as Geertz put it, figuring out what the hell is going on, I find myself, along with a former fashion model, the director of tourism for Central Java, a professor at a local university, and a hairdresser, watching transsexuals strut down a runway, and taking notes on their beauty, dress, walk, poise, breasts, and overall worthiness to become Miss She-male Central Java 2007.
Somehow, in this fairly conservative Muslim country, where men and women generally don't hold hands or even hug in public, where drinking is rare and only for Christians, where immodesty is nearly unheard of, waria*, or male-to-female transwomen/transsexuals/transvestites, are generally accepted and, sometimes, even encouraged--this beauty pageant, for instance, was not a shabby back-alley affair, but set up and funded by the regional government, and hosted in the building of the city's Insitute for Women. Although these pageants have been protested by several conservative Islamic groups, the current Miss Waria Indonesia is a high-profile figure, who works with AIDS-awareness campaigns and writes confessional books, including her bestseller Jangan Lihat Kelaminku, or "Don't Look At My Genitals." And it's not like religion was absent from the evening, either--those of the judges and staff who were Christian gathered in the VIP room for a quick prayer before starting; during the pageant's introduction, we were greeted with the blessings of Allah called down on our heads; and one of the contestants, my personal favorite, was even wearing a headscarf and modest evening wear, like any good conservative Muslim girl should.
The pageant itself was pretty much par for the course: the contestants strutted down a runway in revealing clothing, using feathers and fans to flirt at the spectators; the judges argued in the back room about who looked more like a woman, #23 or #64--or, rather, who looked more like a hot woman; and the audience suffered through several loud, melodramatic, slightly off-key musical numbers, complete with backup dancers and fog machine. The audience was almost entirely other waria, growing drunker and more boisterous by the minute, although there were a few groups of friends and family, including young children, and at least one beamingly proud mother, an ancient, hunched-over woman in Javanese traditional dress who, every time her child was on stage, turned around to grin and tell us, "I'm so proud of my girl."
That granny may call them "girls," but, frankly, it was not always immediately evident; they were not, on the whole, as convincing as Thailand's famous lady-boys. Indonesians are usually small, but these girls were not: most, if not all, were taller than me, which is nearly impossible for women and rare even for men. Most also had broad shoulders and strong collarbones showing through their strappy evening gowns; the tiny former fashion model next to me kept making a tsk, tsk noise as she noted this, and I know she eliminated at least one contestant based on her bicep definition. I myself was far more likely to strike out candidates when I noticed their leg hair; I mean, come on: if I feel obliged to shave before wearing a skirt to school, it's only fair that a contestant bothers to shave before entering a beauty pageant. If you want to be a woman, you have to suffer for beauty like one. Oh, and also? With the length of some of those skirts, I had a hard time following the advice given in the title of Miss Waria Indonesia's book. I can now testify that most of the audience and contestants were not, technically speaking, girls.
Not so for the actual winner, though, or so the rumor went. My vote was cast, of course, for the one in the headscarf--how could I resist such delicious irony?--but the other judges shot me down and chose the prettiest instead. Typical. Shallow and unfair and utterly typical. But then again, before I start getting angry, I take comfort in the thought that at least there was one thing about the evening that didn't confuse me.
*This is a tricky one to translate. Waria is a blended neologism, a combination of wanita (woman) and pria (man); hence, in the actual construction of the word, it's closest to the English "she-male," which is the word I chose above. However, "she-male" is often derogatory in English, while waria is the polite, non-derogatory form. Unfortunately for the translator, the other possibilities in English--transwomen, transsexual, transvestite, as listed--are far more technical, and therefore limiting, than waria. The waria community as a whole is diverse, with some just transvestites, who look and act like men in day-to-day life**, and others transwomen, dressing and identifying as women, and others still transsexuals, actually undergoing surgery to become women, and the term itself encompasses all these variations of sexual identity. To spare myself, and my readers, the intricacies and political implications of these terms, I will use the Indonesian waria, or, if it must be translated, the English "she-male," though with the caveat that I don't mean it offensively, and have only chosen it for its relative simplicity and similarity, in origin and structure, to the Indonesian term.
**I asked one kind waria, who spoke excellent English, whether I should, when speaking to waria, use Pak, mister, or Ibu, Mrs. She said, "It depends on whether I'm wearing lipstick." Such a flexible gender identity, wouldn't you say?