Embodied lives, imagined reaches: Gendered subjectivity and aspirations for belonging among waria in Indonesia

Embodied lives, imagined reaches: Gendered subjectivity and aspirations for belonging among waria in Indonesia
Terje Toomistu


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.

The thesis also includes three published articles:

Article I
Toomistu, T. (2019). Between abjection and world-making: Spatial dynamics in the lives of Indonesian waria. Journal of Ethnology and Folkloristics, 13(2).

Article II
Toomistu, T. (2019). Playground love: Sex work, pleasure, and self-affirmation in the urban nightlife of Indonesian waria. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 21(2), 205–218.

Article III
Toomistu, T. (2019). Embodied notions of belonging: Practices of beauty among waria in West Papua, Indonesia. Asian Studies Review, 43(4), 581–599.


Terje Toomistu

Defended in


PhD defended at

University of Tartu, Department of Ethnology, Institute of Cultural Research






National politics
Gender and Identity