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Shinta Ratri, fighter for transgender rights in Indonesia, dies at 60

New York Times - February 25, 2023

Seth Mydans – Shinta Ratri, the leader of an Islamic boarding school that offers a haven for transgender women in Indonesia, died on Feb. 1 in Yogyakarta, a city on the Indonesian island of Java. She was 60.

A colleague at the school, Rully Malay, said the cause of her death, in a hospital, was a heart attack.

Ms. Shinta, who had transitioned as a teenager, founded the school, Pesantren Waria al-Fatah, in 2008, along with two colleagues, as a retreat and a place to pray. For transgender women in this largely Muslim nation, discrimination is particularly acute at mosques, where men and women generally pray separately.

"In the public mosque we made people uncomfortable. We needed a safe place for trans women to pray," Ms. Shinta told The Guardian in 2017.

"In here you can be with a women's clothes or men's clothes, it's up to you," she added. "It depends how comfortable you are."

As many as 40 students at a time have attended the school, with several of them living there as boarders. They are taught prayers and comprehension of the Quran, and they join in regular prayer services.

"Shinta was, and still is, the face of the waria rights movement. She is all over the internet," said Georgie Williams, the founder of "/Queer," a podcast devoted to issues of gender.

Transgender women in Indonesia are known as waria, an appellation that combines the words for woman (wanita) and man (pria).

In an interview with Ms. Williams in 2019, Ms. Shinta said:

"We have a dream so that they have welfare in their old age. There are health checks, psychology, spiritual cleansing, entertainment activities such as farming, hobbies, elderly exercise – the most important thing is financial assistance for renting a house and a packet of nutritious food."

Ms. Shinta's greatest contribution may have been spiritual guidance.

"The first thing I tell every trans woman who comes here is, being a trans woman is not a sin," she said in a video interview for Vice Media in 2021. "In this world it's not just men and women who exist. There's us. We trans people exist as well."

Her words resonated among marginalized and self-doubting transgender women throughout the country.

"What she is doing is giving back the humanity to the trans women community," Mario Pratama, an Indonesian L.G.B.T.Q. organizer, said in a video sponsored by Front Line Defenders, a human rights organization that honored Ms. Shinta in 2019.

More than 80 percent of Indonesians are Muslim, and although the religion takes a notably tolerant form there, militant Islam has been rising, and it has brought pressure on the government to become more rigid.

The country took a step back from liberalism in December with the passage of a new law that bans sex outside marriage and places strict new limits on free speech.

The new rules pose a challenge to transgender women and could be used to target same-sex couples in a country where they are forbidden by law from marrying.

"Indonesia's new criminal code contains oppressive and vague provisions that open the door to invasions of privacy and selective enforcement," Andreas Harsono, senior Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Transgender women face widespread discrimination in finding jobs and are generally forced to support themselves with marginal employment, which often includes street performances and sex work.

Their life on the streets can be harsh.

"We are harassed, we are robbed, we are pestered for money," Erni, a street musician and former sex worker who is a student at the boarding school, said in the Vice video.

"They can call me a transsexual, a transvestite, Dracula or even the devil," said Erni, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.

Ms. Shinta's transition was supported by her family. She was not forced to leave home and did not face those hardships.

Born on June 5, 1962, in Yogyakarta, Ms. Shinta was one of nine children in a middle-class family of merchants.

She earned a bachelor's degree in biology from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta and became an advocate for transgender, gay and lesbian rights in 1981, while still a student.

In 1982, together with Ms??. Rully, Ms. Shinta formed the Yogyakarta Waria Association to address transgender issues. Ms. Rully then joined her in setting up the boarding school, together with Maryani, another friend.

The school faced a defining crisis in February 2016 when a mob from the hard-line Front Jihad Islam raided it and forced it to close for five months.

Ms. Shinta turned the raid into a lesson in courage and affirmation.

"When the fundamentalists sent us a threat through social media that they would attack the school, we tried to evacuate," said Renate, a student at the school, speaking in the Front Line Defenders video. "But she said, 'No, I am done running.'"

As she recounted that moment on the video, Ms. Shinta said she told the students: "We will defend this place even at the risk of our lives, because this is our fundamental right, our basic right. Because when we are not allowed to pray, to express ourselves, to gather and to learn, of course we stand up against that."

In that same video, Renate said: "Shinta's stubbornness gave us an example of what we should do. If one person stands up, then others can have that feeling of, OK, I can also stand up."

[Seth Mydans reported as a foreign and national correspondent for The New York Times and its sister publication, The International Herald Tribune, from 1983 to 2012. He continues to contribute to The Times.]

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/25/world/asia/shinta-ratri-dead.htm