Waria of Yogyakarta: Islam, Gender, and National Identity

Lily Zwaan, SIT Study Abroad

Indonesia: Arts, Religion, and Social Change


It took me a while to find Bu Yuli. It was starting to rain, and I mostly nodded and smiled as I struggled to understand the directions I asked of people on the street. It was a crowded neighborhood, and I couldn’t make sense of the house numbers. When the rain started to get stronger, a woman insisted that I sit under her porch roof until it slowed down. I sat with her husband as she brought us hot tea. I decided to try one more time- I held up the notebook with Bu Yuli’s address and asked if he knew the house. He recognized it right away. “Waria?” he asked, curious but unsurprised. When the rain stopped, the man walked me to Bu Yuli’s house, where the two greeted each other with friendly familiarity. I was struck by the fact that there was no tension or awkwardness; it was like any interaction between two neighbors. As I found out soon after, you don’t have to go out looking to find waria1. At a restaurant near Malioboro Street, many men and women would come up to customers begging, some of them singing or playing a tambourine. One waria in her late twenties or early thirties walked up to the restaurant in a short jean skirt, and a tight feminine top. Her long, styled hair was down, 4 1 In keeping with common practice I italicize “waria” only the first time and she wore light eye makeup. She started to sing and dance for the customers, and was received unsurprised, though with some amusement because of her dance moves. Her singing was high, clear, and unreserved, and she knew how to make people laugh. She worked the crowd; at one table she paused to take a picture with a tourist family’s young daughter, and as she left she made a show of hugging the father of the family to the hilarity of everyone at his table. No one was shocked or alarmed by her presence, in fact she made a lot of money on this short stop. People in Yogyakarta are accustomed to seeing waria around.