JAKARTA — In a suburban part of Jakarta, we're walking down a dirt road up to a very small pink house at the end of an alley. There are chickens running around, and children playing. It's here that Indonesia's first retirement home for transsexual and transgender people — known as waria in Indonesia — is being built.
In the doorway, two elderly transgenders whose teeth are missing call out "good morning."
Inside, Yulianus Rettoblaut peers into a mirror while a friend goes about the daily ritual of applying her heavy makeup — thick white foundation, fake eyelashes, bright red lipstick and a long black wig that's tied in a bun at the back.
"I realized that I was a transgender when I was in grade five at school," says, Yulianus, who goes by Yuli. "I lived in a village in an isolated area on the island of Papua. There was no one there that was a transgender or gay. But suddenly I started feeling attracted to men when I was around 11 years old. I thought, "what is this feeling, is it an illness?""
It was not until Yuli was 17 years old that a university friend who was also transgendered took her to a Jakarta area rife with prostitution among waria that she realized there was a parallel world. "I was so confused," she says. "There were so many people like me dressed up so beautifully."
When asked how she felt when she realized there were others like her, she says she no longer felt alone. "I felt like a weight had been lifted from me because I saw that if we wear beautiful clothes and got makeup you could easily attract guys and be paid money for it! So you get satisfied, get to be beautiful and you earn money."
Hustling for money
Jobs aren't easy to come by in Indonesia if you are a man living as a woman, and 17-year-old Yuli wound up doing what many other warias do: working as a prostitute on the streets, a world she says was harsh and violent.
She was regularly abused, she says, and many customers refused to pay. To add insult to injury, Yuli and others often had to run away from the police or Islamic vigilante groups that tried to beat them.
It was during this time that she heard her parents had died. "They had heard news that I was now wearing women's clothes," Yuli says. "I think I disappointed them so much that it killed them. I didn't go home for the funeral because my family hated me. They said because of what I had done my parents had died."
Yuli's brother is a policeman who was very angry about Yuli being transgendered. "He wanted to shoot me because he said I had shamed my family," Yuli ways. "My family had high hopes for me because I got very good grades all through school."
She says her brother seemed fully prepared to pull the trigger. "Yes, he put a pistol to my head and he wanted to shoot," she says. "They shaved my head, but I managed to run away back to Jakarta. I really hated myself at that time, and I decided that I would spend the rest of my life showing the world and particularly my family that even though I am a transgender I can do good and they would be proud of me."
She went on to become the first waria to earn a law degree at a leading Islamic university and is now completing her masters studies in law. She is also a high-profile leader of Indonesia's significant transgender community, who fondly call her Mummy Yuli.
As such, she decided she should do something to support aging waria rejected by their family and society.
"As they get older, people become even more scared of waria, and we can't sell ourselves in the same way young waria can," Yuli says. "From a government perspective, they are confused about whether to put them in the male or female old people's homes, and their families certainly don't want to look after them. So I see many of them struggling, begging on the streets and living under bridges. I feel really sad seeing them like that, and no one is paying attention to this issue, and my house was not big enough to house many."
So she is now renovating her two-bedroom house that doubles as a beauty salon. Yuli shows me the construction. A second floor is being added, and the bathroom is being extended.
Yuli already has a waiting list of 800 waria who want to move in. At the moment, the house is home to three elderly waria. Photos of them as young and beautiful line the walls, and cabinets are full of their beauty pageant trophies.
Yoti Maya is nearly 70 years old and has lost all her teeth. She was disowned by her family when she was a teenager.
"My mother opened my door and found me in bed cuddling with a man," Yoti recalls. She told my dad, and he called all my family together and said, "I don't want this in my family so you must leave the house now. If you live or die, I don't care. You just have to get out of the house." I was just a teenager, and they threw me out of the house at night with nothing but the clothes I was wearing. I was crying. I was young, and I didn't have a job. But I accepted my fate."
Yoti eventually found work as a chef on ships and has traveled all across Asia. She now does the cooking for this small nursing home, which also holds training sessions for elderly transgenders so they can obtain the skills to live independently.
Yuli's brother — the one who had threatened to shoot her — actually visited the old people's home recently. "He didn't come in but just walked around and started to cry," Yuli says. "He said, "I never thought you would change and become a good person. It doesn't matter that you are waria, but you have become a role model for your community and you are providing a home for those in your community in need. Our family is very proud of you.""
He told her that the family had simply not wanted to accept her as a prostitute. "He said that the past was the past, but as a brother he was very proud of me," Yuli recalls. "A few days later, I had my law graduation and he came along. He couldn't say anything at the celebration — he couldn't speak because he was just crying. Not long after that, he died. I went to his funeral, and he had left a message for me that I must continue to be a good person."
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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