Through informal and skills-based courses, a non-profit school for trans-persons offers the community a bright chance to lead independent and productive lives
he transgender community in Pakistan faces many challenges. From ostracisation to blatant discrimination, several hurdles make their daily lives a struggle. Most of those who identify as trans or form part of the khwajasira community do not get to avail basic learning opportunities or formal education out of fear of stigmatisation and financial limitations that often stem from familial rejection at birth. Many trans-persons live the lives of nomads and resort to begging in the streets or dancing at small-time private parties to make both ends meet. Oftentimes the young are victims of sexual abuse and/ or thrust into prostitution in their pre-adolescence.
To provide support and recognition to this oppressed community, a landmark transgender rights bill was passed by the parliament in 2018. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act not only defines the term ‘transgender’ clearly but also gives trans-persons the right to choose their gender identity as per personal perception and have it changed on previously issued government documents. The legislation also underlined their right to property as trans men and women. Sadly, the bill has remained contentious and some factions continue to question its merits.
If the transpersons receive formal education and skills training freely and comfortably, it is possible that they can attain some semblance of normalcy and financial stability that they desire and deserve.
The Punjab Education Department, in the last couple of years, has established schools for trans-persons in Multan, Bahawalpur, Dera Ghazi Khan and, most recently, in Lahore. These schools are a step in the right direction. How well they will perform is something only time will tell. Meanwhile, private individuals are coming forward to do their bit.
Enter Muhammad Ammaz Rauf Farooqi and Asif Shahzad, two friends, who co-founded what must be called Lahore’s first school for trans-genders, The Gender Guardian (TGG), in 2018.
Housed in the old TEVTA building, in Garden Town, the school is open from 3pm to 6pm on the weekends only. It offers a variety of educational courses.
TGG is run as a non-profit, and all courses are taught free of charge. As its co-founder, Muhammad Ammaz Rauf Farooqi, put it, “Many students return to take other courses; they want to learn as many skills as possible.”
TNS visited the school on Sunday last, and was welcomed graciously by Farooqi, the students and the faculty. (It is important to understand that TGG promises a safe space for trans-persons, so it is best that you seek permission from the school administration before paying them a visit.)
“We want to help them through skill-based training courses so that they can earn a respectable living,” said Farooqi.
The courses offered at TGG include stitching, computers, driving, makeup and machine embroidery etc. “Many of our students struggle with a lack of self-confidence, but through these courses, we are able to help them,” said Iqra Manzoor, who teaches makeup skills.
Manzoor believes that psycho-social support can uplift the community. Farooqi seconds her: “Teaching [them] skills alone is not enough. Many a time they need financial support. All our students receive a Rs 2,000 stipend.” Though it’s quite minimal, the stipend helps the students cover their travelling costs. Most of them are from Lahore, but there are a few who come from as far as Muridke.
Once a student has completed a course and wishes to set up shop, TGG provides them with sewing machines, makeup products and other materials that they require.
Each course is six months long, and students can enroll in one course per semester. At the end of the course, a small graduation ceremony is held to mark the successful completion of a training session. “Students can rejoin classes for another course if they wish to,” says Farooqi.
The school is run as a non-profit, and all courses are taught free of charge. Although it’s a weekend school, the instructors at TGG get their monthly salary.
“Many students return to take new courses,” Farooqi added. “They are keen to learn as many skills as possible.”
At this point, Rahat Javed, the sewing instructor, showed her students’ work proudly. Maya, a student, also presented her handiwork. Patchwork totes, beautiful handmade clutches, embellished key chains, the student did seem to have the eye of an aesthete. Dressed fashionably, with makeup on, she admitted that it “has been a wonderful experience studying at the school.”
It was evident from her use of proper fashion terminology that Maya had learnt the craft well. She is one of the students who took a host of courses at the TGG.
Maya is one of the few students who had some formal education when she enrolled at the TGG. Farooqi explains, “A couple of our students are enrolled at the undergraduate level.”
The trans-persons who manage to get the conventional school/ university education have to deal with bullying and abuse on campus which can leave them scarred for life. This also forces many to drop out. Reportedly, over 40 percent of trans-persons are illiterate in Pakistan. An initiative like the TGG, thus, is the need of the day. Through informal and skills-based courses, the school provides the trans community with a chance to lead independent and productive lives.
The writer is a staff member