|A Bissu practicing his role as a spiritual leader|
Middle Eastern and Western societies are or have traditionally been narrow-minded as far as the roles of sexes, and subsequently that of genders, are considered.
Gender identity is complex and sometimes difficult to comprehend but to put it simply, a gender is defined by a set of social norms affixed to your biological identity. These norms are often rigid and changing them takes time and requires an adequate environment to flourish.
Most societies had and still have some pretty specific ideas on what a man or a women should be or do. The two-gender societies can seldom accommodate for anything different from this rigorous vision.
But what if a society was able to deal with the natural differences that exist within it in a peaceful and harmonious way without the need to engage in a bitter fight for equality? The answer might just come from a special tribe in Indonesia: the Bugis.
The Bugis divide their society not into 2 genders but 5. Yes, five genders! They acknowledge three sexes (female, male, hermaphrodite), four genders (women, men, calabai, and calalai) and a fifth meta-gender group: the bissu.
The calabai and calalai roughly translated mean false woman and false man. The term might seem derogatory, but in reality calabai and calalai are accepted in society and are not harassed.
A calabai is anatomically a man but prefers to lead a life somewhat similar to that of a woman. Most importantly, a calabai is the person everyone refers to in weddings. A calabai would oversee the whole preparation and gets the final say.
A calalai is a born female but lives her life as a male in terms of clothing, work, and so on. Though not a must, but some calalai take wives and even adopt children.
The bissu is the gender that combines all genders; they don’t have to be but can be hermaphrodites. Bissu play the vital role of medicine men or spiritual guides, they offer blessings and oversee the harmony and spiritual balance within society. Some westerners refer to bissu as transvestite priests, but this is incorrect as bissu have their own special dress code different from that of women.
It is easier to understand the Bugis society as a pyramid, at its base are the men, women, calalai and calabai and on top of which the bissu sit. But most importantly, they believe that all of these genders must harmoniously coexist.
What’s more surprising about this tribe is that they actually converted to Islam a long time ago, but they kept many of their pre-Islamic habits and incorporated them within an open and tolerant system that believes in the basic tenets of Islam.
Unfortunately, fundamentalist uprisings with strict interpretation of Islam attacked the Bugis tolerant model, forcing many bissus to abandon their ways. Some survived the persecution and continued their age-old traditions.
So beyond the cultural aspect of it all, the Bugis teach us that gender and sexual diversity do not destroy societies, but indeed they can help it to live more peacefully.
The Bugis model is quite unique and does not apply to most socities, certainly not ours, but if a small society managed to find an ingenious solution to embrace its intrinsic diversity and make everyone, no matter how different, to feel welcome, why can’t we at this day and age do the same?
The Bugis’ society is indeed exceptional and inspirational, but each society should find its own unique way of dealing with sexual and gender diversity. The forward-thinking Bugis found solutions to problems that countries on the cutting-edge of human rights only recently found.
Lebanon is trailing far behind. Though the LGBT community made great strides to push things forward, it’s a fight far from being won. Every now and then a blow or a set back reminds us of how far we really are from reaching the finish line.
The events of the past couple of weeks showed us that we live on thin ice. Mr. Antoine Shakhtoura won favors among the country’s homophobes. Even Mr. Marwan Charbel proclaimed his antagonism towards homosexuals; a threat as he reckons.
It would help if Shakhtoura and Charbel paid a visit to the Bugis and witnessed first hand that gender diversity is not an abomination nor is it a threat to society. In fact, it’s a richness worth celebrating!
|Colorful celebration in Bugis society with bissu at the forefront.|
By: Elie Wafi