Local Trans Women Redefine the Notion of Beauty in a ‘Secret Pageant’

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LGBT community and activists continue to challenge status quo by secretly organizing a national beauty pageant in Jakarta, while successfully staying away from local media attention and attacks from Islamic hard-liners.

November 11 was an unforgettable day for Qienabh Tappii. The 28-year-old could not hide her excitement when she bagged the crown for this year’s Miss Waria Indonesia, a beauty contest that seeks to promote LGBT rights in Indonesia.  

“I’m very happy, I feel like I want to cry,” the new queen said while standing next to a 2-metre-tall red-and-gold trophy and carrying a smaller one on one hand.

Like most beauty pageants, Miss Waria Indonesia also involved contestants strutting down the runway in evening gowns and prizes for winners at the end of the line. But what is different about this contest is its ability to empower the transgender community across the archipelago.

Miss Waria Indonesia was joined by a select group of transgender women representing different regions across Indonesia. That night, Tappii triumphed over 30 other contestants, and she is set to represent the country in an international pageant that will take place next year in Thailand.

Despite her victory, Tappii knew that her work just got started and that she must maintain her focus on the mission. “Tonight is the beginning of my struggle for my rights as a waria. I want waria to be accepted, appreciated and understood in our society, and to be equal with other Indonesians. I will work really hard to achieve it.”

‘Waria’ is a local term that is used to refer to a transgender or those who find that their sense of gender is different from their sex. In Indonesia, the rights of transgenders and the LGBT community have been a subject to ongoing debates among authorities, academics, religious parties and the public in general.

Throughout the year, activists have been fighting Indonesian conservatives who refuse to acknowledge LGBT people’s rights because they believe that accepting them would be considered as defying the nation’s norms and values.

See: LGBT Rights Questioned in Indonesian Courtroom

For that reason, Miss Waria Indonesia was kept extremely under the radar. To avoid any risk of discovery, violence and especially attacks from Islamic hard-liners, the media were notified only a few hours in advance of the location of the pageant. Guests were also asked not to post anything on social media throughout the contest.

“If the public knew in advance that there will be such an event, those who use religion as their mask could attack us. That’s why we kept it secret until the last minute,” pageant organizer Nancy Iskandar revealed.

Regardless, the event managed to attract around 200 people who came to show their support for the transgender community. One audience member even came all the way from South Sulawesi to ‘show his solidarity’. “We Indonesian waria have the same feelings, what they feel in Jakarta we also feel it in Makassar,” Fitri Pabentengi said.

News of Miss Waria Indonesia 2016 only broke out recently, when a series of international media reported the event. Miss Waria Indonesia is organized by Putri Waria Indonesia Foundation and Indonesian Waria Communication Forum.

Featured Image via Veronica Jauriqui; Video via Redfox Fox

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Caranissa is an editor at Indonesia Expat. She occassionally writes, dances and performs on stage.