In Depth

Pakistan opens first transgender school

Founders hope vocational courses will enable marginalised community to find acceptance

Pakistan’s first-ever school for transgender students has welcomed its first students this week.

Around 40 adult students at the Gender Guardian School in Lahore are studying vocational courses in eight fields, including graphic design, cookery and fashion design.

The pioneering institute aims to provide a safe environment for transgender people of all ages who want to learn without fear of prejudice or persecution.

Pakistan is home to at least 10,000 transgender citizens - although activists say the true number is 30,000 in Lahore alone - and their status is complex and precarious.

Similarly to neighbouring India, Pakistani culture has historically recognised a third gender, known as hijras, a low-status caste whose “blurring of traditional gender boundaries was seen as granting them mystical powers,” Al Jazeera reports.

Transgender Pakistanis are entitled to some legal protections, and there have been social breakthroughs, too - the country recently got its first trans news anchor, Marvia Malik.

However, discrimination and violence against the transgender community remains commonplace.

They are “often harassed and sidelined by society”, Deutsche Welle reports, and struggle for access to employment, healthcare and housing. There have been several high-profile rape or murder cases in recent years involving trans victims.

Shut out of mainstream employment and estranged from family, some rely on dancing, begging or prostitution for a living, says Daily Pakistan, which further tarnishes the image of the community in the socially conservative nation.

“We are trying to convince them of leading better lives, and also try to tell the rest of society that they are also human beings, and that they should be treated as humans,” the school’s founder, Asif Shahzad told Pakistani newspaper Dawn.

Like the majority of transgender Pakistanis, most students at the school are not in contact with their families and will live with a “guru”, a mentor from the community, during their studies.

Exploring Future Foundation, the NGO behind the school, plans to open two more institutions in Karachi and Islamabad, which will offer a full educational curriculum.

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