Saskia Wieringa: “All Religions Have Their Progressive, Human Rights-Oriented Sides”





Saskia Wieringa: “All Religions Have Their Progressive, Human Rights-Oriented Sides”

Renowned anthropologist on cross-cultural gender and women’s same-sex relations looks back at her personal faith journey through three religions

Photos by

Salzburg Global Seminar

Sep 29, 2020

This blog is part of a series for the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum’s program on LGBT* and Faith. Read more here:

My journey along the faith landscape has taken me through three religions, Protestantism/Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, while I have also encountered a sprinkling of Hinduism. 

I grew up in a strict Calvinist family, and although my parents left their church eventually, the narrow morality of that Protestant creed stayed with them. During my primary school years at the “School with the Bible” I was at odds with not only my family but also with my teachers. As a typical tomboy I yearned for pants and comfortable clothes, but was forced to wear skirts (with a petticoat!) and frilly blouses. While the boys played soccer outside, we girls had to learn how to sew and knit, in a lesson called “useful handiwork.” I was frustrated and angry, particularly when I played a game called “cowboys and Indians” (a very popular children’s game of hide and seek in the Netherlands in the 1950s) with the boys in the street and my skirt got entangled in the bushes while I was hunting for the “Indians” who had hidden there. Fond of playing soccer, I nevertheless never got a football for my birthday though that always topped my list, but a doll, or a doll’s pram. That doll’s wicker pram later came in useful when I had stripped it of its blankets, for transporting stones and mud in the engineering works along the ditch behind our house, which I undertook. But it soon collapsed, while the yellow plastic truck that was second on that list would have held out much longer. Singing songs about Jesus the shepherd I realized that I was the one brown sheep in his flock of white animals, hopelessly lost in the dunes we lived close by to. 

When I finally came out to my parents in my early twenties they still harboured their moral convictions, called me perverse and cut off my student allowance. I left, and didn’t look back. By that time, I had joined the radical feminist, lesbian and anti-imperialist movements, which to a large extent consisted of secular people. I came into conflict with the feminist anthropology group I had co-founded, when they called my wish to engage in research on lesbian communities worldwide ethnocentric, implying that lesbians are only found in the Western world. 

As I engaged in a search for anthropological materials on gender diversity, transgender practices and same-sex relations across the world, I came across fascinating examples of such relations and practices in texts from the Indian subcontinent. The goddess Durga for instance fused with the power of the mighty god Shiv to defeat a demon. Ardhanary is a popular deity, half male and half female, that was also well known in the province I presently live in for most of the year, East Java. One of the foundational texts of Hinduism, the Mahabharata, contains many examples of sex and gender changes. To this day some of these stories are popular in the Javanese shadow puppet plays. I collected articles on African women marriages, Indonesian transgender trance dancers and many more forms of gender diversity, and published books and articles on these themes.

My most inspiring encounter in those years (the early 1980s) was with an abbess of a Buddhist vegetarian temple in Singapore. She was in her eighties and had a relationship with an abbess of a similar temple in Johore, in neighbouring Malaysia. Due to my friendship with a niece of hers, who introduced us, I called her “vegetarian great aunt.” She told me her story of escape from China after it had been taken over by Mao’s forces. Temples such as hers were considered “feudal” and they were no longer safe. In her region of Guangdong, vegetarian temples were common, dedicated to the transgender East Asian deity Guan Yin, which is present under different names across temples from Indonesia to Japan (as Kannon) and is often depicted with either or both male and female features. Originally Guan Yin came from the Indian god Avalokitshvara. In northern India and Nepal he is also linked to the powerful goddess Tara.

The nuns and lay associates of these vegetarian halls lived a vegetarian life: no meat and no men. They resisted heterosexual marriage, but these marriage resisters might marry among themselves, as the two abbesses did. They went through the hair combing ceremony and other common marriage rites. When I asked my vegetarian great aunt what I could learn from her story and how I could assist the lesbian movement, she initially answered that religion keeps women together. The exodus out of China had dispersed the vegetarian temples, which were now found from Taiwan to Malaysia, but their common religious origin united them. When I answered that religion could no longer inspire most of us in the West, she reflected, and said slowly that in that case we must keep telling our stories. And this is what I have done my whole life: collecting and telling stories, to keep our histories alive.

In 2004, I converted to Islam. Some of my lesbian-feminist friends took it badly, saying I had betrayed their ideals, as they considered Islam to be “always-already” anti-woman. But I have always been optimistic. When I was young, a popular saying was: two religions on a pillow, that means the devil is between them. The reference was to Protestantism and Catholicism. At the moment this enmity is hardly felt in the Netherlands. Inspired by my love for the most wonderful feminist Muslim woman I had ever come across in the world, my decision at the time seemed very logical to me. The Islam she believed in could be my Islam as well. And why did Christianity and Islam have to be so antagonistic? After all they share a common origin with Judaism. I did not want to succumb to the Islamophobia so common in the West. An added advantage of my conversion was that I myself and my work on Indonesian feminism and the LBT movement would be more intelligible in Indonesia itself. I became inspired by Indonesian friends and scholars interpreting Islam in a progressive, feminist way, with space for human, women’s and sexual rights. The Indonesian LGBT* movement was expanding at the time, calls for sexual rights were being voiced more openly.

In the last few years, however, the space of a human rights-oriented, inspiring and tolerant Islam in Indonesia has been shrinking. A virulent campaign of political homophobia that started by the end of 2015 is increasingly marginalizing the LGBT community. Bars are raided, transwomen are forced to cut their hair and be more manly, lesbian couples are chased from their apartments; defendants of the LGBT community are being accused of being both perverts and communists. Intolerant, hardliner, Wahhabi Muslim groups have been successful in infiltrating mosques, political parties and the educational sector. Their definition of Islam is not mine nor that of my liberal friends. Our space is shrinking, but we will keep up the fight for an open, contextual, inspiring and tolerant Islam, which is inclusive of gender diversity.

How will my journey continue? To me all religions have their progressive, human rights-oriented sides. Though of course I am also very much aware that all religions have been and still are being used for hate-filled actions. 

In my own life, there have been many unexpected encounters and discoveries. Reflecting this blog series, one such unexpected encounter was seeing a statue of transgender goddess Guan Yin again at my first gathering of the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum that took place in the  Schloss that once belonged to theater director Max Reinhardt. There in the so-called Chinese Room, she was capturing our attention, and we adopted her as the Forum’s protective deity. 

Guan Yin stands in the center of a chandelier in the Chinese Room of Schloss Leopoldskron, home of Salzburg Global Seminar

I composed the following prayer, which I would like to share with you today, as part of my journey, and a protection of yours.

Honorable God/goddess Guan Yin,
Venerable Avalokiteshvara
Merciful Kannon
Bountiful Tara

You are many and yet one
As we are

You have travelled all over continents and oceans
As we have

You went through many transformations
As we did

We ask you to protect us in our transformations and journeys, to bless our lives, and to empower us through the bounty of your wisdom.

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Saskia Wieringa is professor of Gender and Women’s Same-Sex Relations Cross-culturally at the University of Amsterdam, a human rights activist and genocide researcher. She has published widely on sexual politics in Indonesia, women’s empowerment and heteronormativity in Asia. She is presently working on a book on the history of the LBT movement in Indonesia.


As part of our program on LGBT* and Faith, we are inviting Fellows of the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum of different sexual orientations and gender identities and of different faith communities to address the questions of what is needed for religious communities and leaders to be instrumental in promoting the wellbeing, equality and inclusion of LGBT people in faith communities and society and how do LGBT people, today and throughout history, enrich and change the religious communities of which they are a part? 

The articles and comments represent opinions of the authors and commenters, and do not necessarily represent the views of their organization or institutions, nor of Salzburg Global Seminar. We thank our blog contributors for their generosity in sharing their personal stories.

* LGBT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. We are using this term as it is currently widely used in human rights conversations on sexual orientation and gender identity in many parts of the world, and we would wish it to be read as inclusive of other cultural concepts, contemporary or historical, to express sexuality and gender, intersex and gender non-conforming identities.