Kolkata, India — A groundbreaking madrasa in Bangladesh exclusively for transgender people aims to provide them opportunities they are largely denied in this deeply conservative Islamic society.

The privately funded religious seminary — the first madrasa in Bangladesh dedicated solely to transgender people — opened in the capital of Dhaka on Nov. 8. About 150 students are expected to attend.

Though the country has recognized the third gender since 2013, allowing them to stand for elections and vote, Islamic society makes it difficult for them to get a formal education and jobs. Most transgender people in the country live in extreme poverty.

Local politicians, school officials and leaders of the transgender community attended the opening ceremony for Dawatul Quran Third Sex Madrasa in Kamrangirchar, south of Dhaka.

“This initiative is aimed at improving the lives of people from the third sex in country,” Mufti Abdur Rehman Azad, the madrasa’s founding member and director, told Zenger News.

“Education is not allowed for them, they are not allowed in mosques, and they never get a good job,” he said. “They were forced into prostitution and begging.”

“The main aim of this institution is that we give transgender people a chance to live with respect.”

Students will be taught basic principles of Islam and the Quran, along with Bengali, English and mathematics. The students will also have opportunities to pursue employment.

“The students will mostly learn Islam and vocational subjects. We want them to be human resources so that they can earn their own living and live with dignity,” Azad told Zenger News.

“After giving them education, we will be taking them to our other branches for teaching which will be opening shortly. We are also planning to give sewing machines to each and every individual.”

The madrasa was funded by donations from the late businessman Ahmad Ferdous Bari Chowdhury, through his son, Col. Rehanul Bari Chowdhury.

Bangladesh madrasa

In Bangladesh, transgender people are often rejected by their family because of social stigma and are banished from their home at a young age. They typically earn money by singing and dancing at weddings and childbirths. A blessing for a child by a member of the community, often referred to as hijra, is considered holy.

Many transgender people, however, are forced into sex work.

Joya Sikder, an active member of the hijra community, left her home when she was 16 and migrated to Dhaka to start a new life. But she faced immense struggles and sexual violence.

“The family does not accept the child because they fear the society,” she said. “A biologically male person claims herself to be female mentally and that becomes difficult to accept. Once a transgender person leaves the family, they are left with nowhere to go except the hijra community. Most of them do not complete primary school when they arrive.”

Sikder hailed the initiative of dedicating a madrasa exclusively for the transgender community. She also advocates for formal education being part of the curriculum.

“In 2014, the government of Bangladesh decided to provide jobs to us. Around 14 hijras cleared the written exam and the viva (voice interview). Just before joining, there was an announcement that there are fake hijras as well, and all the people from the community who cleared the examination were called for medical examination at Dhaka Medical College and were humiliated. Finally, everyone was rejected.”

The hijras said that the government is not aware of the difference between transgender and intersex, and a psychologist or gender diversity expert should be present to analyze such situations.

There has been great confusion between the two communities in Bangladesh, which has led to controversy. Though the government wanted to give jobs to several people from these communities, the lack of understanding of both terms has led to the use of “fake hijras.”

Shale Ahmed, executive director of Bandhu Social Welfare Society, which works for the rights of LGBTQI communities, said, “In intersex, a person is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. About 1 percent of people of the country’s population are intersex.

“When it comes to transgenders, a biologically male person will identify himself as a female mentally and is known as trans-woman. A biologically female person will identify herself as a man mentally and is known as trans-man,” Sikder said. Most have transformed from male to female.

Ahmed said the gazette notification that the government released in 2013 should have been clearer about the definitions of hijras, or transgenders.

The government states that there are 10,000 transgender people in the country, while activists estimate that the number is around 100,000.

(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Judy Isacoff)

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