During the Islamic fasting month of Ramadhan last year, Maryani, a transgendered woman living inYogyakarta, had a revelation. She would go on umrah, the minor haj pilgrimage, to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
The 53-year-old went to a travel agent in Yogyakarta, her hometown, who specializes in arranging trips for Muslim pilgrims. The agent rejected her application. As a prominent transgendered woman, Maryani does not hide her gender identity from her friends and neighbors. Nor did she with the agent.
'They say that some of the other congregants who were going to take the trip as well were scared and uncomfortable that a waria would be in the group,' Maryani, who is popularly as bu Mar or mbak Marshe, said on the telephone.
Maryani described herself as a waria, a portmanteau of the Indonesian words for woman (wanita) and man (pria) that is often used to describe transgendered women.
However, finally, Maryani's dream to make the pilgrimage came true. She flew to Mecca on April 26 and returned May 5, and performed all the pillars of the umrah, covered from head to toe as a woman.
'In the holy land, they don't differentiate between a waria, a real man or a real woman. There was no problem. I wore a mukena and went to Haram mosque and to Mecca and Medina,' she said, referring to women's Islamic garb.
Maryani has received local and international media attention since 2008, when she transformed her home in a small alley in Notoyudan hamlet in Yogyakarta into a place for transgendered women to study Islam.
Rully, the program manager for the Yogyakarta Transgendered Women's Organization (Kebaya), said that Maryani's trip to Saudi Arabia had important meaning for members of Kebaya.
'There has been a stigma that transgendered people are identical with people who have no morals,' Rully said. 'Maryani's pilgrimage shows that there are waria who are religious and who have good spirituality.'
Maryani's pilgrimage to Mecca as a transgendered woman was made possible when Anis Kurniyawati, the owner of the Yogyakarta office of the Arminareka Perdana travel agency, offered her a spot on a pilgrimage tour that he was arranging..
Anis said that Arminareka Perdana was a travel agency that aimed to help relatively low-income people perform the haj or umrah rituals by encouraging the customers to become part-time sales person for the agency.
Those who book a pilgrimage with Arminareka make a down payment of Rp 3.5 million (US$353.5) for the Rp 20 million cost of the tour. Anis said that potential pilgrim could pay for their tours in installments, or receive a commission for each person that they brought to the agency that could be applied to the total cost of their trip.
After finding a willing travel agent to sponsor her pilgrimage, Maryani dodged another problem. Her identification card now lists her gender as female, as does her passport.
'I've never hidden the fact that I'm a waria. I didn't ask for female status on my ID card,' she said.
The solution to this potential problem was simple: The village head in Yogyakarta where Maryani lives offered to issue a card identifying her as a woman, which the head felt was more appropriate. That opened the door for Maryani to get a passport listing her gender as female as well.
The flexibility of Maryani's village chief allowed her to perform religious rites as a woman. However, other transgendered woman have not been as lucky as Maryani, and have had to identify themselves as men to perform the pilgrimage 'as men.
'I was given a female ID card and I'm grateful for that. But I don't claim that I'm a woman. If there's a status of female, male or transgendered person, I would chose transgendered,' she said. 'Can Indonesia accept that?'
Raised Catholic by adopted parents, Maryani converted to Islam as an adult, and said that religion could be helpful in leading a person to a better life.
'It can help waria think for the long term and help them make better decisions.'
She explained that being in touch with their spirituality helped transgendered women to make good life decisions, saying that many transgendered women live from one day to the next as sex workers.
Countries such as the United States, Britain and Australia recognize three gender options with 'X' as a choice for intersex people.
While Indonesia has yet to recognize other gender identities than female and male, the acceptance of transgendered people has increased.
Last year, a transgendered woman, Yuli Rettoblaut, became a candidate for the National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM).
Maryani said that she hoped her experience in carrying out the umrah can open the door for other transgendered women who would like to practice the rites.
' Photos courtesy of Maryani and Hartoyo/OurVoice