Exorcisms and ‘corrective’ rape: inside Indonesia’s controversial LGBT ‘conversion’ therapies


Growing up as someone who does not conform to traditional gender norms is not easy in Indonesia. Just ask Christine*, a 35 year-old transgender woman in West Java who has been made to undergo conversion therapy no fewer than four times. While the pseudoscientific practice has been condemned in much of the West, conversion therapy is still widely carried out by faith-based organisations in the world’s largest Muslim majority nation, as well as some commercial entities. Homosexuality is not illegal in Indonesia but rising religious conservatism has fuelled increasing discrimination against the community. Christine, who grew up in the city of Medan in North Sumatra province, said that she was first subjected to the practice – a type of Islamic exorcism known in Indonesia as ruqya – when she was thirteen. “I had been feminine since I was seven,” Christine told This Week In Asia. “I was really close to my elder and younger sisters. I played with girl toys and I did chores that girls normally do.” By sixth grade, she was being bullied in school for being “really girlie”, she said, with schoolmates often shouting slurs at her in Bahasa Indonesia meant specifically for transwomen. “That’s when my mum asked a Muslim cleric to do a ruqya for me. The cleric told my mum that there was a female jinn inside me,” she said, using the Arabic term for a supernatural spirit. He then gave her some holy water to drink. When she was 16, Christine underwent ruqya for a second time. On this occasion, the cleric brought a burial shroud and some flowers – the former to be buried as a symbolic gesture so that she could be “reborn” as a male, while the latter were to be used in bathwater to “cleanse” her soul. It was around this time that Christine began to wear make-up, wigs and high heels in public. In response, and at the urging of family members and neighbours, her mother enrolled Christine in a week-long ruqya boot camp at an Islamic boarding school, seven-hours drive away from the family home. “All I did was pray five times a day, read the Koran, and take a bath in holy water. At one point we sacrificed a goat and gave the meat to the people who live near the school,” she said, adding that the sacrifice was meant to make her more “pious”. Christine said she felt the programme “disrupted” her mental health, so she quit after three days. Continued exposure to religious conversion therapy also strained her relationship with her mother, prompting Christine to eventually leave for Malaysia where she went on a six-year “soul searching journey” – following one final ruqya session. Nowadays, Christine works as a trans activist at an organisation in the Indonesian city of Bekasi, and says that she is living proof that interventions designed to “cure” LGBT people do not work. “I don’t believe in ruqya. Trust me, I’ve been through it four times,” she said. Research by the American Psychological Association in 2007 found that conversion therapy is “unlikely” to change a person’s sexual orientation, while the American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry in 2018 said that such therapies are “harmful” and “should not be part of any behavioural health treatment of children and adolescents”.

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