On 16 December at 12.15 Terje Toomistu will defend her doctoral thesis „Embodied lives, imagined reaches: Gendered subjectivity and aspirations for belonging among waria in Indonesia“.
Professor Art Leete, University of Tartu
Dr. Benjamin Hegarty, University of Melbourne
Dr Dédé Oetomo, GAYa NUSANTARA Foundation
Professor Niko Besnier, University of Amsterdam
Senior Research Fellow Aet Annist, University of Tartu
Similar to other Southeast Asian societies, Indonesia has a long history of practices and identities that exceed gender-normative behaviour. This dissertation focuses on waria – male-bodied individuals who feel and express themselves as women in a country that is also home to the world’s largest Muslim population. Although waria form a visible social group in Indonesia, their basic human rights along with other gender and sexual minorities have been greatly challenged during the past few decades. Sexuality has become a political playground, against which the question of waria belonging, to the nation or otherwise, is of the utmost significance.
Since waria often go through migration, in which they sever relationships with their families, longing to belong is a widely shared sentiment among waria. As a result of, and in response to, their social exclusion, waria actively seek self-expression, pleasure and a sense of belonging at those places and times that are available to them.
Following extended ethnographic fieldwork in the regions of Java and Papua – the central and the peripheral within the Indonesian national imaginary –, this thesis describes the life paths and spaces of waria, and the practice of beauty as related to national belonging and narratives of modernization. Namely, in order to claim belonging to the locally surrounding communities, waria aspire to a sense of national and transnational belonging. Through these imagined reaches waria make their lives more liveable. Hence, the dissertation asserts that bodily forms and transformations hold a significant capacity to provide or withdraw access to categories of belonging, which in turn influences the feelings of worth. Additionally, the thesis underscores the interrelated and embodied nature of gender, highlighting desire in the waria understandings of gender. Therefore, the dissertation contributes to the contemporary debates around issues of (trans)gender, sexuality and embodiment.