DHAKA, Bangladesh ― A’s family adored her until she was a five-year-old and they found out that she was transgender. When friends started saying tui to hijra re (you are a hijra), and neighbours would come to her parents house to gawk at her, they confined her to one room. A few years later, A had to leave her family and join a transgender community in Dhaka.
This was the start of A’s arduous journey that would lead her down the road of singing and begging for a living. The 26-year-old did not see any light at the end of the tunnel, or believe her life would ever change, until two weeks ago when she first heard that a cleric named Mufti Abdur Rahman Azad had set up the Bangladesh’s first religious school for the transgender community on 6 November, and that it would be offering Islamic and vocational courses as well as general subjects— Bengali, English, Maths— free of charge.
After Azad came to Gulistan, where she and other transgender people live, and told them about the Dawatul Quran Tritio Linger Madrasa (Dawatul Quran Third Sex Madrasa), A spoke with her “guru,” the leader of her group in the community, about joining.
That same day, A travelled by bus to Kamrangirchar, 10 kilometres from Gulistan, and was among the first to get admitted to the religious school.
“I want to study, I want to learn new skills so that I can work like other people. I know that society is yet to accept us in the main work-force, but I think learning new skills will help us in the future,” she said. “We can hope for a good future.”
Azad, the cleric behind the privately-funded madrasa, told HuffPost India that it would be funded by the Ahmed Ferdous Bari Chowdhury Foundation, a charity established by the family of Chowdhury, a freedom fighter in Bangladesh’s liberation war against then West Pakistan in 1971, and a businessman, who died in 1986.
“I have been working for many years to establish a madrasa for the hijras. We often see them asking for money in the streets, local buses, trains and other public transport because they don’t get any job to make their living,” said Azad. “We should create an environment for them to learn and get jobs in the mainstream workforce.”
Till 19 November, 50 students were admitted to the madrasa.
The first-ever madrasa for transgender people— Pondok Pesantren Waria Al-Fatah— was founded in Indonesia in 2008. But it was closed in 2016 after threats of violence from conservative groups. As per a Voice of America report, the madrasa had started running again in 2017. Pakistan’s Shemale Association for Fundamental Rights (SAFAR) had also planned to open a madrasa for transgender people in 2016 in Islamabad, but there is no further news of its establishment. In 2016, India opened its first school for transgender people in the city of Kochi.
Abida Sultana Mitu, the president of Hijra Kalyan Foundation, a welfare association for transgender people in Bangladesh, said the opening of this first religious school for transgenders marked a turning point, but more educational institutes were needed for the country’s 1.5 million-strong transgender community.
“It’s an emotional situation for hijras because this is the very first time when an educational institute has been established with the sole aim of providing them with a better future,” she said. “The government should also help hijras by providing them with quality education.”
Fighting a village
A’s early childhood memories are hazy, but she recalls that it was her father’s friend who persuaded her family to give her up to the transgender community in Dhaka, and it was her father, who ran a grocery business, who brought home a “guru” to take her away.
A said that her mother was the only person in her family who tried to stop her father and other relatives from sending her to the transgender community when she was eight-years-old, but “she was not able to fight the whole village for me.”
A used to go home once every two or three months until her siblings stopped her from visiting her mother. She embarrassed them, they told her.
Her mother died of a prolonged illness, nine years ago. Her father passed away from a heart disease in March, this year. A still tries to stay in touch with her siblings, especially her younger sister.
“I’ve almost forgotten how my childhood was,” she said. “I was the second child and my parents used to love me more than any of my siblings. But when they came to know that I’m not like the others, they started behaving strangely. I was around five-years-old. It was impossible for me to understand my gender or my identity at that age. ”
Going to school
Inside the transgender community in Dhaka, A said that she had to work hard, begging, and singing at weddings and at ceremonies to celebrate the birth of a child. The group makes BDT 2000 to 4000 (Rs 1,748 to 3,496) from one performance.
On most days, A wakes before the morning prayer at five in the morning. She lives with three members of the transgender community in a rented house and pays BDT 7,000 (Rs 6,000) per month. After cooking and cleaning, A goes to beg on the public buses, roadside shops, for five to six hours a day.
After A joined the Dawatul Quran Tritio Linger Madrasa, earlier this month, her daily routine has changed for the first time in a long time.
Instead of rising early to begin a day of begging, A now heads to the religious school every morning at nine in the morning, travelling 10 kilometres by bus. For six days a week, A studies the Quran.
Azad, the cleric, said that the religious school will offer subjects like Bengali, English and Maths, as well as vocational courses like tailoring and making handicrafts, in the coming weeks.
After spending two hours studying the Quran, A heads back home and returns to the streets to beg. If she can complete a vocational course in tailoring or handicrafts, A said that she would like to get a job or set up a small business with the transgender people that she lives with.
“I don’t like to beg on the streets or dance or sing for money. But since there was no hope of getting any job, I had no choice,” said A. “My life did not have any direction. I felt good for nothing. Now, for the first time, I feel that my life is changing for the better.”
(Editor’s note: A requested her name not appear because she fears backlash from her family and society.)