Investigating the development of progressive Islam in Indonesia


With Khanis Suvianitia, an Indonesian friend currently conducting research on transwomen and religion

Diego Garcia Rodriguez (PhD, Gender and Sexuality)

Since 2016, LGBTIQ Indonesian citizens have been object of unprecedented attacks from both state officials and radical religious organisations. In the late months of 2018, after a phase of relative calmness, several incidents took place soon after the start of the presidential campaign for the elections taking place in April 2019. On November 2nd, a group of transgender women were hosed down by the local police in Lampung, Sumatra, using water from a fire truck. On November 17th, another group of transgender women were expulsed from a village in East Jakarta after the emergence of a campaign against LGBT people in the area. Soon after, another group of transgender women was attacked by dozens of Islamic fundamentalists in the city of Bekasi, near the capital Jakarta, until they were stripped naked and beaten. Following these events, a Sumatran city passed a new regulation to fine gay and transgender citizens for “disturbing public order”. Several other attacks on sexual minorities have taken place after the start of the new year 2019.


Interviewing a school teacher on gender, sexuality and religion

While these attacks often take place in the name of Islam, queer Indonesian Muslims are finding ways to live their religion, gender and sexuality in positive ways. With the term ‘queer’ I refer to a variety of ways of being such as waria/ transpuan/ wandu/ mak cik/ wadam/ sachi/ siwar (roughly translated as male to female transgender), trans laki-laki/ priawan/ transman (roughly translated as female to male transgender), gay/ binan, lesbi/ lines and biseksual individuals. Their lived realities illustrate a dissonance between mainstream homophobic discourses and the personal experience of religion, faith and spirituality. Using the Indonesian island of Java as my key fieldwork site, I spent 7 months, from May to December 2018, mainly in the cities of Jakarta, Surabaya and Yogyakarta to conduct an ethnographic study that will form the core of my PhD analysis. During my time in Indonesia, I conducted around 90 interviews with religious leaders, scholars and queer Muslims as well as observations at religious institutions and events. While before starting my fieldwork I had a set of clear objectives, being “in the field” helped me improvise and adapt to new topics and situations. For example, a new emergent issue was the passing of local laws such as the Perda Gepeng in Yogyakarta, which has been used to arrest transgender women who are often “re-educated” through conservative readings of the Islamic teachings.


Dressed in local attire with a group of students living in an Islamic boarding school in Central Java

Through my empirical data, I aim to challenge the assumption that queer Muslims are “oppressed subjects” in need of saving by conceptualising queer religious agency as part of potential contingent and fluid ‘empowering’ processes and outcomes. As a reaction to the increasing conservatisation of religious discourses, NGOs and civil society groups have started to organise an increasing number of workshops and discussions linking gender and sexuality with religion, a conversation that was not as common in the past. Due to the critical importance and consequential status of new Islamic hermeneutics to accommodate sexual minorities within Islam, a significant aspect that my fieldwork has also sought to investigate was the development of progressive Islam in Indonesia to advance knowledge on the development and role of those discourses in relation to the queer Muslims’ everyday experience of gender, sexuality and religion.

A fieldwork grant kindly provided by the UBEL-DTP ESRC allowed me to conduct my fieldwork and gather the large amount of empirical material that I am now trying to make sense of. Getting used to being back in London is being a difficult experience after my time in Java. I cannot thank enough those individuals who chose to share their experiences, opened the doors of their houses to welcome me and had a smile even when the situation was not always the best.

Participatory Placemaking in Budapest

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Participants of the intervention in Budapest

Nikolett Puskas (PhD, UCL Institute for Global Prosperity)

The ESRC support helped me to carry out my first fieldwork activities in Budapest over the summer of 2018. My research investigates place-based values of wellbeing and the good life in the context of public spaces. Working with local communities, we identify infrastructural challenges and address the most pressing one via ecosystem services and nature-based solutions. Throughout the process, local complexities (e.g. legislative, physical, economic, technical) are unveiled allowing for tailored and more effective proposals for the collaborative development of urban environments. The participatory process requires intensive engagement over an extended period of time to introduce oneself and build trust with the local community of the fieldwork site. In Budapest, I got to know and work with very inspirational multiple stakeholders, including a diverse community, open-minded municipality, NGOs and local initiatives.

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Imagining the liveable city via a stamping game

Our collaborative inquiries lead to addressing challenges around waste (especially green ‘waste’, which should rather be called green goods) and water. With a local NGO, we developed a gamified intervention to address these in a playful manner, allowing for people’s empowerment, knowledge- and skill share. As a result, during a sunny September afternoon, under the guidance of professionals, the community built and painted pallet benches, a ‘compost hive’ – a Hungarian invention, learnt about different types of waste and opportunities to reduce and recycle, also decorating their own textile shopping bags.

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Building the compost hive


Furthermore, calculated their household water consumption, identified opportunities of rainwater harvesting and finally, spontaneously decorated a firewall. Thanks to the kindness of the municipality, this event also marked the opening of a new community space at this location to pilot possibilities. We continue to maintain relationships with the people and partners in Budapest, all of who taught me a lot throughout the course of this fieldwork and I am immensely grateful for the experiences and all contributions went into this work.

Visiting Panna Tiger Reserve, Central India

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Adam Runacres (PhD, UCL Anthropology)

For my PhD research, I travelled to Panna in Madhya Pradesh, Central India to live in a village on the border of Panna Tiger Reserve. My study looks at the relationships between the conservation initiative and its officials and the local people and how the tiger reserve has an impact on their lives. The conservation landscape is home to multiple stakeholders, including local villagers and the Forest Department but also the burgeoning tourism industry, city residents and other governmental departments, and I endeavoured to develop relationships with each group to understand their inter-relatedness. Particularly relevant to the village where I stayed was the National Mineral Development Corporation Diamond Mine (Majhgawan) for the services it provided to local communities such as a school, hospital, post office and a free bus service. It was on said bus that I arrived in the village for the first time, much to the surprise of the local people.


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Panna Tiger Reserve has had a turbulent recent history, having lost all of its tigers to poaching in 2009 and successfully rebuilt the population to over 40 individuals today. However the benefits of this conservation success have been minimal to communities such as the one where I stayed. Livelihoods continue to be curtailed and negatively impacted by conservation and people are growing more concerned about the new generation of Panna tigers expanding their territories into human settlements. In my every day life in Panna, I would spend my time engaging with village life, having long chats over cups of tea, attending village events and observing ritual practices throughout the busy Hindu festival calendar.


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A funded six month extension to my studentship granted generously by the ESRC allowed to me learn Hindi previous to arriving and thus grant me a certain degree of independence in my village life. Now that I have returned, I miss my friends and the jungles in Panna, and walking about London often turn to remark on something like the trees or the birds that I wouldn’t have before. My experiences in Panna are indescribable in their importance to my life now and I can’t wait to visit again soon.


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Alessandro Massazza (PhD, UCL Research Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology).

Co-supervised by Prof. Helene Joffe and Prof. Chris Brewin


We generally tend to struggle with remembering certain things in our day to day life, whether it is where we parked our car or the name of that person we have known for ages. However, following highly emotional events, some people might struggle with the opposite problem: remembering too well.


I am a first year PhD student in Psychology at UCL and my research is focusing on intrusive memories. These are very detailed and vivid memories of part(s) of a traumatic event that pop up unwanted in one’s mind. At times, the person can feel like they are reliving that moment all over again. This can be very distressing. In particular I am interested in exploring the reason why certain moments of a trauma later appear as intrusive memories whereas other moments do not. Contemporary cognitive theories of traumatic stress suggest that what happens at the time of the trauma, such as panic, dissociation, and freezing, might play an important role in the shaping of this peculiar type of memory. These reactions are called peri-traumatic responses.


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The town of Amatrice following the earthquake

I decided to investigate this research question among a sample of survivors of a powerful earthquake that struck Central Italy on the 24th of August 2016 causing the death of 299 people and widespread damage. In particular I focused on the small town of Amatrice which suffered the greatest amount of human losses and was virtually razed to the ground. I collected 104 qualitative interviews on memories of the worst moments of the trauma and accompanying peri-traumatic phenomena, as well as 310 questionnaires. Overall, I collected detailed descriptions of 51 different intrusive memories. This will hopefully allow me to explore, both qualitatively and quantitatively, if something different happens in certain moments of the trauma that affects whether they later return as intrusive memories or not.


The support of the ESRC has been paramount in conducting this piece of research. I hope this work will contribute to shedding some light on the aetiology of this complex phenomenon and provide some answers to guide future prevention and management of this distressing symptom.

Visiting the University of California, Davis

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Eleanor Palser (PhD, UCL Research Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology)

I am a fourth and final year multidisciplinary PhD student, studying Clinical Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL. I am interested in how signals from the body are used by the brain to help us think and feel.
There are theories that suggest that these signals are affected by conditions like autism and anxiety, and this might explain some of their symptoms. So far, I have been using behavioural methods to research this. However, I also want to develop skills in neuroimaging methods, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). A combination of both methods might better enable me to answer this question.

As such, I chose to visit an institution that had a strong track record in conducting neuroimaging research with younger populations, particularly with individuals diagnosed with developmental conditions like autism. There isn’t much of this kind of research happening in the UK, so I decided to travel further afield. I spent six months (three of which were funded by the DTP) in Professor Susan M. Rivera’s Neurocognitive Development lab at the UC Davis MIND Institute . There, they specialise in conducting research on the brain basis of developmental disorders, such as autism.

MIND Institute building at University of California, Davis

MIND Institute building at University of California, Davis

Going in the MRI scanner can be challenging – it is noisy, claustrophobic and you have to stay still. I wanted to learn about what procedures can be put in place to help young children, especially those diagnosed with autism, take part in these kinds of experiments. It turns out there are lots of ways to help participants stay calm, including familiarisation training in a pretend scanner.

While at UC Davis, I worked on a project investigating brain and behavioural differences in how gesture is used and understood by autistic children and adolescents. We found out that gestures are processed differently in the brains of autistic people, and they sometimes struggle to produce the hand posture necessary for others to understand their gestures. This may explain some of difficulties autistic and non-autistic people face when communicating with each other.

I am immensely grateful that I had the opportunity to travel to another institution during my PhD. It is hoped that I learnt will help me bridge the gap between my two disciplines, and conduct more powerful research in my population of interest.