Transgender Islamic School in Pakistan Breaks Barriers

30 March 2021

Every day, Rani Khan gives lessons at the first transgender-only Islamic religious school in Pakistan. Wearing a long cloth covering over her hair, she teaches from the Muslim holy book, the Quran.

Khan, who is 34 years old, used money she had been saving for years to set up the school.

Rani Khan, a transgender woman who teaches the Quran at Pakistan's first transgender only madrasa or a religious school, looks at one of her students during a tailoring lesson in Islamabad, Pakistan March 10, 2021. (REUTERS/Salahuddin)
Rani Khan, a transgender woman who teaches the Quran at Pakistan's first transgender only madrasa or a religious school, looks at one of her students during a tailoring lesson in Islamabad, Pakistan March 10, 2021. (REUTERS/Salahuddin)

The Islamic school, or madrasa, is important for the LGBTQ community in the majority Muslim country of Pakistan.

There is no official rule banning transgender people from religious schools or from mosques. But in Pakistan, transgender people face discrimination and rejection.

"Most families do not accept transgender people. They throw them out of their homes. Transgender people turn to wrongdoing," Khan told Reuters news agency.

At the school, other transgender people have their heads similarly covered. They sit behind Khan, moving side to side, as they read parts of the Muslim holy book aloud.

Khan explains that, earlier in her life, she had turned to "wrongdoing."

"At one time, I was also one of them," she said.

Trying not to cry, Khan remembered how she was rejected by her family at 13 years of age. Because of it, she was forced into a life of begging for money.

At age 17, she joined a transgender group, dancing at marriage ceremonies and other events. But she quit the group to connect with her religion. One night, she had a dream about a deceased transgender friend and dancer. In the dream, the friend begged her to do something for the community.

Khan took the dream as a sign and began studying the Quran at home. She also attended religious schools. Then, in October 2020, she opened the two-room madrasa.

"I'm teaching the Quran to please God, to make my life here" and in the afterlife, Khan said. She explained how the madrasa offered a place for transgender people to pray, learn about Islam and make up for past actions.

She said the school has not received financial aid from the government. But some officials have promised to help students find jobs.

The school has received some individual donations. Khan is also teaching her students how to make clothing. She hopes the school can raise money by selling clothes.

In 2018, Pakistan's parliament officially recognized the third gender. The change gives transgender individuals the ability to vote and choose their gender on official documents.

Still, transgender people are considered outsiders in the country. They often have no means of survival except begging, dancing and prostitution.

The madrasa could help transgender people move closer to acceptance in Pakistani society, said Hamza Shafqaat. He is a lead government official in Islamabad, the capital city.

Shafqaat told Reuters he is hopeful that if you copy this school model in other cities, things will improve.

A religious school for transgender Muslims has also opened in Dhaka, the capital of nearby Bangladesh. And last year a Christian transgender group started its own church in Pakistan's busy southern city of Karachi.

Pakistan's 2017 census recorded about 10,000 transgender people. But transgender rights groups say the number could now be well over 300,000 in the country of 220 million people.

"It gives my heart peace when I read the Quran," said Simran Khan, a student at Rani Khan's school. Simran also really wants to learn life skills.

"It is much better than a life full of insults," the 19-year-old added.

I'm Alice Bryant.

Reuters news agency reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

transgender –adj. of or relating to people who feel that their true nature does not match their sex at birth

LGBTQ –acronym. lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer

mosque –n. a building that is used for Muslim religious services

beg –v. to ask people for money or food

deceased –adj. no longer living; dead

prostitution –n. the work of having sex for money

census –n. the official counting of people in a country or area