The first madrassa, or Islamic school, specifically for transgender students in Bangladesh opened last week in the capital city of Dhaka. It was a first not only in the country, but across South Asia, and experts and rights advocates say it could help a marginalized community feel more welcome, while also challenging perceptions of madrassas in the region.
More than 40 students from Bangladesh's "hijra" or "third gender" community have already enrolled in the privately funded Dawatul Quran Third Gender Madrasa, where they will get a free Islamic education. The school, housed on the second floor of a small building in western Dhaka, has room for more than 100 students.
"Everyone has been very responsive, appreciative and accepting of our initiative to teach the Quran to hijra community members," Abdur Rahman Azad, the madrassa's founder, told CBS News. "We have received many phone calls, hijra leaders have called us to ask if we would teach the members of their community."
Students will be taught the Quran and Arabic language in primary classes, but the madrassa will also teach other languages including English and Bangla, plus other electives in senior classes.
"Our aim is to eventually provide technical, skill-based education to hijra community members alongside madrasa education, so that they are able to earn a living for themselves," said Azad.
"Hijra community members are just as human as anyone else… The Quran does not treat them any differently, so why should we?" he said. "They are human beings and have the same place of respect and the same rights as any other human being, according to the Quran."
"People are hostile"
The government estimates that there are 10,000 hijra Bangladeshis, but rights groups say there are likely more than 100,000 in the country, which has a population of over 160 million.
The LGBTQ community has faced widespread social and economic discrimination for decades in South Asia, and many hijras struggle to access education and employment. Some in Bangladesh work as entertainers, singing and dancing at weddings, child births and other special events, but others turn to begging and sex work.
"Social attitudes towards hijras and transgenders have been regressive for decades… people are hostile to them," said Abdullah Titir, a researcher at the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) and a lawyer who advocates for the rights of gender and sexual minorities in the country.
She told CBS News the hostility stems largely from misconceptions and a lack of public conversation about gender diversity.
The "majority of the people think hijras are intersex people [whose physical anatomy does "not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies," according to a U.N. definition], whereas that's not necessarily the case," explained Titir. "Hijras are mostly transgender people who are inducted into the hijra tradition… being is hijra is more a cultural identity than a biological status."
Most hijras in Bangladesh were born male, but reject their male identities.
"As soon as these people reach puberty, they begin to realize they don't belong to the gender they were assigned at birth, and they start displaying behavior that is gender-non-conforming, they get thrown out of their families and schools," Titir told CBS News.
The lack of antidiscrimination laws in Bangladesh makes it easy for schools to exclude people from the hijra community.
Bangladesh's government officially recognized a "Hijra gender" as a third gender in 2013, and gave them explicit voting and election rights only last year. But homosexual acts remain illegal in the country, and activists say that while the government has shown a willingness to engage with the hijra community, leaders still show a shallow understanding of gender identity and diversity.
"The government's recognition of the 'hijra gender' does not include transgender individuals who are not part of the hijra community," Titir said. "Such people are not entitled to social benefit schemes of the government."
Madrassas the answer?
Dr. Ali Riaz, a politics professor at Illinois State University who's written several books on Islam and politics in Bangladesh, called the madrassa opening in Dahka a "positive step" toward ending the ostracization of the hijra community, "but not a sufficient one."
He told CBS News that the government should develop a "comprehensive plan" to include the disenfranchised community in Bangladesh's social, political, and economic arenas, as well as the education system.
"It won't happen overnight," he acknowledged. "The conversations have to be started, awareness increased, until people accept them as a normal part of the society, as is happening around the world with LGBTQ rights," Riaz said.
There are an estimated 25,000 privately funded madrassas or Islamic seminaries in Bangladesh, and the government has no control over their curriculum or operations.
"These madrassas are not just important educational and social institutions," Riaz told CBS News, "they have also emerged as political actors."
Some of the schools have been accused of discriminating against women and girls, encouraging the patriarchal status quo and even promoting religious extremism and terrorism. There have been reports of students facing physical and sexual abuse at madrassas in Bangladesh,in South Asia.
Riaz told CBS News he worried about the "highly conservative outlook" that many madrassas give their students, the "restricted environment" that prevents free thinking, and a "dated curriculum."
The new madrassa in Dhaka may start chipping away at those concerns about Islamic schools in South Asia, and its management team plans to open more across Bangladesh.
But while experts and activists like Titir agree it's a step in the right direction, they want to see Bangladesh's government ensure transgender people can attend regular schools, not just private madrassas, without fear of discrimination.