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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Beautiful Lives: Priests, Beauticians, and Performance of Islamic Piety in a Non-Gendered Economy in South Sulawesi, Indonesia

  • Author(s): Umar, Umar
  • Advisor(s): Tiwon, Sylvia
  • et al.

The dissertation unravels how the indigenous transgender identity of the bissu experiences reconfigurations within the Indonesian modern culture dominated by Islamic heterosexual norm. Based on the data collected from the field research in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, archival research in the Netherlands, and media research, the dissertation traces the inflections of bissu identity at the intersection between local traditions and the emergent modern spectator community, artistic experimentation, global culture industry, and homosexual movement in the aftermath of Suharto’s fall in 1998. Within this multicultural network, the indigenous identity of the bissu constitutes a paradox in which the convergence between the bissu traditional practices and modern artistic practices transcends the bissu’s distinct transgender position from its local reality and engenders a discursive and social space that allows the bissu to overcome the constraint of Islamic heterosexual norm and to provide a cultural and historical register for the urban transgender groups to claim their local cultural root. The location of the bissu indigeneity and transgender identity lies within the dynamic interactions among the bissu, the state, and culture industry, in which moral sentiments and aesthetic sensibility emerge in their distinct forms. The research poses a critique against the failure of the mainstream narratives to address the emerging moral space the bissu inhabit. The space, which I call a spiritual aesthetic space, contains disparate religious and cultural elements as the bissu unite three strands of identity: transgender, Islamic, and indigenous.

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