In September 2018, Mathieu Richer spent ten days in Yogyakarta, Indonesia photographing a community of people who identify as “waria”, the third gender of Indonesia.
Warias (“wanita” [woman]+“pria” [man]) make up an estimated 3% of the Indonesian population, which roughly amounts to 7 million people. Warias have a long and complex history with the socio-political body of Indonesia. In the past, warias were well-integrated into Indonesian society and were able to achieve a high social status; many were even appointed to the royal court as advisors or ambassadors. However, with the recent spread of a more severe Islam in parts of Indonesia, the livelihood of warias have been seriously threatened.
Ten years ago, in the city of Yogyakarta, local activists and Ibu Shinta, a prominent waria, created the only Koranic school run by and for warias. At ‘Pondok Pesantren Waria al-Fatah', Islam was taught regardless of sexual orientation and gender. But al-Fatah was more than just a school: it was a haven for uniting, educating and protecting the community of warias in Java. Working alongside NGOs, al-Fatah provided HIV testing to the local community and to educate warias—often compelled into prostitution—on HIV prevention and safe sex.
In 2016, al-Fatah was forced to close after violent threats from conservative groups. Thanks to the pressure of the local population and the intervention of the queen of Yogyakarta, al-Fatah managed to re-open a couple of months later. Fortunately, Yogyakarta is a distinctively liberal pocket of the country, but in other parts of Indonesia, it would be rare that such an institution could prosper.
Mathieu Richer's photo-essay “Waria” highlights the educational work carried out by Ibu Shinta and the community of Yogyakarta, and takes a more intimate look into the individual lives of warias, whose visibility is at stake. Moved by the personal and political history of warias, ‘Waria’ is part of a larger project that Ficher is working on about the historical and present conditions of warias across Indonesia and Southeast Asia at large.
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