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Bangladesh's first trans school ignites hope for acceptance

Madrassa's Opening Shows Progress May Be Slow, But Is Still A Step Forward

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Hijras take lessons in the Quran, Bengali, English, math and social sciences at the madrassa 

Riya was given away by her parents when she was five after a short spell at school where she was bullied for being different.

Unable to accept that Riya is a hijra, a transgender or an intersex person, her parents abandoned her to a group whose primary means of survival was begging and sex work. In conservative, Muslim Bangladesh, hijras exist on the fringe of society.

But thanks to the vision of a cleric and funding from an army officer, the Dawatul Quran Third Sex Madrassa opened in November, for once offering Bangladesh's hijra community an education that they had never had access to and the first step toward respectability.

Some 26 years after she was forced out of school, Riya recently found herself in a room with 20 others like herself, reciting Quranic verses. The room, at the top of a three-story building in the impoverished neighborhood of Kamrangir Char, was abuzz with the sounds of students learning.

In the first school established for hijras in the country, the first batch of students were taking lessons not only in the Quran, but also in Bengali, English, math and social sciences. The madrassa, a school dedicated to the study of Islam, follows its own Qwami curriculum that is not regulated by the education board of Bangladesh.

The students are, nonetheless, grateful. "We didn't get the chance to get an education in regular school or madrassa. Society ostracized us," Riya told Nikkei Asia. "Now, I am ecstatic to get that chance."

On Dhaka's traffic-clogged roads, hijras are hard to miss. Dressed in glittering saris, their faces often made up, hijras approach cars and knock on windows with coins and offer blessings in exchange for money. They also crash weddings and birth ceremonies, singing bawdy songs and leaving with fistfuls of takas.

But often behind the theatrics are sad stories of prostitution and exploitation, and cruel and dangerous castrations. Hijras are also persecuted by law -- a colonial-era framework is still in place in Bangladesh that punishes gay sex with jail terms. As outcasts, hijras have few choices in life.

"Who wants to beg? I don't want to, but I have no option," said Riya. "And the situation has gotten worse now for begging. The police harass us. But we aren't given any other opportunities."

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Top: Riya, 31, says she is "ecstatic" at being offered the opportunity to learn at the madrassa. Bottom: Imam Abdur Rahman Azad, 40, founded the madrassa with funding from an army officer 

It is this injustice that drove Imam Abdur Rahman Azad, now also the principal of the Dawatul Quran Third Sex Madrassa, to help hijras and other members of the LGBT community. The 40-year-old cleric began by giving lessons to some hijras in a mosque in Kamrangir Char. Soon, his teaching program was spread to six mosques in the capital after like-minded clerics agreed to do the same for hijras.

"They are born this way. We, society and state, keep them away, out of our own social stigma. We have to remember that Allah doesn't discriminate among his creatures," Azad told Nikkei Asia.

Azad was able to realize his vision of setting up a permanent base and a formal institution after he secured funding from Rihanul Bari Chowdhury, a top-ranking army officer and the son of a wealthy business owner. The Dawatul Quran Third Sex Madrassa opened on Nov. 6.

Chowdhury did not want to be interviewed but Azad said: "Neither he (Chowdhury) nor I are doing this to get name and fame. Our goal is to give a marginalized community like hijra a chance to get the light of education."

Government data show that there are around 11,000 hijras in the country although some private organizations estimate that the number could be as high as 50,000.

Hijras tend to live in small communities under the guidance of a guru they pay to provide them some form of security, shelter and basic necessities. Gurus, who are also hijras, tend to take on the roles of mother, spiritual leader, and sometimes pimp to their wards.

Hashu, a 52-year-old guru in the Kamrangir Char area who has sent hijras to the madrassa, said, "I wanted to set an example in front of other gurus and want them to send their chelas -- disciples -- to the madrassa as well."

Even with some education, hijras still have a long way to go before acceptance by society. Abida Sultana Mitu, founder and president of the Bangladesh Hijra Kalyan Foundation -- an organization that works for the welfare of hijras -- told Nikkei Asia that opportunities for education and employment are limited for them.

In 2013, Bangladesh officially recognized hijras as the third gender and some five years later, allowed them to vote and even run for office. "Yes, there is recognition for them. But here, society still holds a lot of prejudice against hijras. People think they (hijras) can't do anything other than begging and prostitution," said Mitu.

As such, Mitu said the establishment of a madrassa is a step toward the social integration of an otherwise neglected and persecuted community. She added that for hijras to be educated at a madrassa is "especially significant" as they are often seen as deviants and sinners by hard-line Muslims in the country.

"This madrassa has thus shown that the Islamic clerics can be a powerful driver of positive social changes," she said.