“Trans women have the right to worship. We are God’s creations and have the right to religious freedom, just like anybody else.” These are the words of the late Shinta Ratri, human rights defender, trans woman activist, and head of Al-Fatah Pesantren (Islamic school).
The Al-Fatah Pesantren, established in Yogyakarta in 2008, was founded, led by, and dedicated to the trans women community. It gained national and international prominence in 2016, when, at the height of the national campaign of hate directed at queer Indonesians, Islamic hard-liners forced its closure. Yet this only saw the pesantren attract more allies for its cause, and it re-opened soon after.
Shinta Ratri died at age 60 on 1 February, leaving legacies that will long be treasured by marginalised communities in Indonesia. One of Shinta’s most remarkable contributions was her fight for an inclusive religious space for gender and sexual minorities – something that mainstream faith communities across the world struggle to provide.
It is never easy for queer individuals like me and her to access a religious space that is free from bias and prejudice. More often, our existence is mocked. We are rejected and dehumanised, and sent the message that faith belongs only to people who are heterosexual and cisgender (people whose gender identity aligns with the sex assigned to them at birth).
Yet Shinta’s persistence and bravery opened eyes, as well as doors, to an inclusive understanding of faith where everyone is welcomed, embraced, and empowered. Shinta proved that religiosity and spirituality belong to everyone, regardless of gender identity, expression, or sexual orientation.
Further, her stance on “queer religiosity” was not limited to the rights of queer Muslims. She was also an active supporter of religious rights for her fellow trans women, regardless of their faith. During Christmas, for example, Shinta encouraged trans women to organise a peaceful and inclusive Christmas event.
The pesantren also performed an important role in economic empowerment. It is a bitter reality that trans women are some of the most vulnerable and economically marginalised people in Indonesia. About a week before her death, Shinta and other members of the Al-Fatah pesantren community launched a cooperative to advance the economic interests of trans women living around the pesantren.
Queer religiosity, inclusive theology
Shinta showed that queer Indonesians do not need to conform to cis-heteronormative expectations to practice their faith. “It is our destiny to be waria (trans women); it is not a choice.” Shinta said on the Metro TV talkshow “Kick Andy” in October 2021.
When asked how trans women should dress when praying, she simply stated it was up to personal comfort and preference. The fact that students at Al-Fatah were given the freedom to choose their own religious attire reflects the inclusive approach to religiosity that Shinta championed. Queer bodies and identities provided an entry point to a greater diversity of religious practice. This is, in fact, the true nature of theology. It is interpretative, critical and diverse, not monochromatic and rigid as most people believe.
It is little wonder then that Shinta and the Al-Fatah Pesantren had many allies and supporters among other faith-based institutions committed to strengthening inter-faith dialogue and understanding. The pesantren regularly hosted religious leaders from minority faith groups, as well as lecturers and students from Islamic universities.
Through the lens of gender and sexual diversity that is the root of the school, Shinta promoted inclusive theology. Queerness, so often deemed “abnormal”, “sinful” or “dirty”, was reimagined as something that could be powerful, pious, virtuous, even visionary. Likewise, spirituality, rather than being an individual pursuit, was viewed as something that could promote solidarity among diverse identities.
These were critically important messages for queer individuals who have experienced abuse in mainstream religious spaces. Shinta’s activism showed that spirituality could be healing.
Shinta will be remembered as a humble human rights defender who fought for an inclusive understanding of faith that lifts up all people, regardless of who they are. When religious arguments are so often used to justify discrimination and violence against minorities in Indonesia, Shinta’s life is a reminder that faith can also be a powerful tool to promote acceptance and understanding.