On Friday, November 6, the first madrasa for transgender Muslims in Bangladesh was opened in Dhaka through a private initiative. Until now, there has been no madrasa (or even school) exclusively dedicated to the transgender people in the country. This makes it a historic moment for this long-marginalised community, perhaps no less significant than the 2013 official recognition of a "hijra sex", the 2019 granting of full voting rights through the creation of a "third gender" category on the national voters list, or the 2020 decision to include them in the national census to be carried out in January 2021.
According to media reports, the madrasa, named Dawatul Quran Third Gender Madrasa, has been set up in a three-storey building near Lohar bridge in the Kamrangirchar area of Dhaka. Up to 150 students can study in the non-residential seminary. There is no age limit for enrolment, no fee for education. Besides traditional Islamic teachings, the madrasa authorities plan to provide lessons in Bengali, English, maths and some vocational training which will give them the opportunity to pursue better work opportunities and even more formal education in the future, if they so desire.
While talking to journalists at the inauguration ceremony, Abdur Rahman Azad, secretary general of the madrasa, explained what drove him to take this initiative. "For too long, they (transgender people) have been living a miserable life. They can't go to schools, madrasas or mosques. They have been victims of discrimination. We, society and the state, are to blame for this," he said. He added: "We want to end this discrimination. Allah does not discriminate between people. Islam treats everyone as a human being. Hijras should enjoy all rights like any other human being."
To those following the event, it was a truly uplifting moment—coming as it did on the eve of the global Transgender Awareness Week—and the first step, as the clerics called it, towards integrating the minority group into the wider social network.
You don't normally put the words "transgender" and "madrasa" together in the same sentence. School, maybe. But not madrasa, not in a country increasingly plagued by militant intolerance and more doctrinaire forms of Islam where the transgender community, commonly known as hijras, are often viewed as deviant or "sinners". The madrasa is thus a statement, a potent symbol of pluralism, a way to bring these people from the edge of society to the centre of Islam, thereby the centre of life in Bangladesh. Equally, and perhaps more strikingly, it also challenges common assumptions about where the progressive ideas of pluralism and tolerance come from. Normally, we associate such ideas with secular activists and individuals, who we expect to lead movements for the rights and dignity of traditionally marginalised groups. Seldom do we expect to see mawlanas at the forefront of such a movement. The founders of the transgender madrasa have thus shown that the clerics, if properly motivated, can be a powerful driver of positive social change because of the influence religion holds over this country.
Education is of course an important means to that end. And going forward, we need to make sure more such citizen-led institutions are formed, while the authorities begin a process of reintegrating students from the hijra and other marginalised communities into the mainstream education system. The objective should be to empower them so they can start fighting for their own rights, rather than being dependent on others to do so. Education has historically played a crucial role in empowering minority groups. An uneducated group can neither speak for themselves nor help those who want to help them, prolonging their crisis in the process.
But the magic of education is unlikely to work in this case unless we, the state and society in general, also go through a process of (re)educating ourselves. While we talk about their education and social reintegration, we must also remind ourselves to cleanse our minds of anti-hijra biases and prejudices, which are precisely why this community has had little change in their luck despite the official recognition and other favourable decrees. Today, the hijras continue to endure transphobic slurs and attacks. They are still cast away by their own family, and forced to choose a life of dependence. They remain deprived of their inheritance as the inheritance law only recognises males and females. They are also not considered for jobs and other rights and services which are taken for granted by most people, people who have little idea about their gender-nonconforming counterparts but continue to hold sway over their life anyway.
How entrenched our biases are, and how dangerous our ignorance about them is, can be understood from the government's first attempt to implement the "hijra" category through an employment scheme, following the 2013 recognition. A report by the Human Rights Watch thus describes the incident: "In December 2014, the Ministry of Social Welfare invited hijras to apply for government employment—a major boon for a population usually consigned to begging, ritual performances at ceremonies, and sex work, and who invariably rely on hijra leaders (or gurus) for protection. At first welcoming this potentially empowering development, hijras seeking government jobs lined up for the initial interview."
But it didn't go as expected. They were humiliated by the ill-informed Social Welfare Department officials who asked them inappropriate questions about their gender identity and sexuality. Twelve of them were finally selected.
Then in January 2015, the health ministry called for a "thorough medical check-up" to identify "authentic hijras" among them. So the 12 finalists reported to Dhaka Medical College Hospital, where "physicians ordered non-medical hospital staff such as custodians to touch the hijras' genitals while groups of staff and other patients observed and jeered—sometimes in private rooms, sometimes in public spaces. Hospital staff instructed some of the hijras to return multiple times, stretching over a number of weeks, to undergo additional examinations. Following these abuses at the hospital, photographs of the 12 hijras were released to online and print media, which claimed the hijras were 'really men' who were committing fraud to attain government jobs. Some hijras reported that publication of the photos sparked increased harassment from the general public and economic hardship for those involved."
If this is the outcome of a state trying to help, imagine the outcome of its inaction or indifference. Imagine how hard it must be for the hijras "enjoying" no such affirmative action or support or legal protection or whatever people need to lead a dignified life. All this points to the need for educating the "educators", those of us who sit in judgment of them but have no real knowledge of their challenges and sufferings. It also points to the need for sensitising state officials and policymakers responsible for undertaking measures related to the rights and welfare of the hijra community.
While the establishment of a transgender madrasa marks a much-needed first step—setting a precedent that should inspire other religious leaders, secular activists and even ordinary folks to come forward in this regard—it will be wise to remember how zealots in other Muslim countries tried to undermine such efforts. In 2008 in Indonesia, transgender activist Shinta Ratri founded Pondok Pesantren Waria al-Fatah, the first madrasa for transgender people in the world. It was built as a safe haven for the transwomen to learn and pray. No prejudice. No bigotry. No discrimination. But all that changed in 2016, when the madrasa was closed after threats of violence from conservative groups claiming that it was "violating Islamic precepts". We must remain careful that no such untoward incidents take place here.
The only way to counter any possible fundamentalist backlash is to establish more such institutions and also schools and vocational training centres, which will eventually bolster the pro-hijra campaign. The ultimate goal of all such initiatives, however, should be to create the path to empower them socially, legally, economically, politically, and psychologically. The same goes for all other marginalised minorities also. Let's hope the Kamrangirchar madrasa sparks off a social revolution to bring about the much-needed change for hijras.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.