Khushbu sits on a school chair, chin tilted upwards, waiting for Moon to finish applying make-up to her eyes. The two transgender women could have been doing this anywhere, but the scene is different because they’re sitting in a children’s classroom in Lahore, Pakistan.
The walls of the classroom and the reception area outside are decorated with pictures. A few transgender women sit around chatting and joking with each other. On weekdays, these halls of learning are filled with children, but on weekends they are open to adult transgender people who want to learn and build their skill sets.
“You should do her make-up for her wedding,” someone pipes up, and Khushbu nods in agreement. I ask her if it’s true she is getting married, but before she can answer, a young transperson interrupts saying: “Can a transgender person even get married?”
Nearly everyone snaps at this, almost in chorus: “Why not?”
Moon finishes the meticulous task, and Khushbu leans forward to tell me: “This has really helped many people in being focused on what they want to learn.”
This is a matter of pride for Asif Shehzad, who heads the NGO, The Gender Guardian, which runs the school. The classes have been running smoothly and an increasing number of transgender people have expressed interest in applying to attend them. “We provide both formal and non-formal education, and usually a lot of the applicants opt for a beautician’s course,” he says.
Asif, who is also an employee of the government sector, says his inspiration for the school comes from a project on the transgender community that he worked on at university. “I found out that their basic hindrance to progress was a lack of education,” he says. “I have always thought that if they fix that, then several issues would automatically go away.”
But it is not easy for the marginalised transgender community to cope in the mainstream schooling environment, especially since they are often subjected to a lot of bullying.
“When I was in the ninth class,” recalls Khushbu, “I was kicked out of school by the administration, just for being effeminate.
“All my life I have been subjected to bullying and harassment. The boys in my class would lock me up in the classroom and beat me up, sometimes even molest me.”
Khushbu stopped her education, but the harassment did not end there. “Last night I was going shopping to a posh mall on Link Road, when I was stopped and told that I wasn’t allowed there.”
Saquib says that after finishing graduation it has been hard to find a relevant office job. Despite applying to many places, there have been no calls for interview. “But then this is a problem most graduates face. If ‘normal’ people aren’t given jobs, why would I expect myself to be top of the list?”
Now enrolled in the beautician’s course at the school, Saquib says: “Maybe somewhere down the line I can set up a small salon or something offering beautician services.”
Shehzadi, another student here, has been thinking along the same lines.
This is a school where age is not a bar. Dressed in a man’s shalwar kameez with hair tied up in a Samurai-style ponytail, at 18 years old, Moon is the youngest student here. Chandni, who is approaching 60, is also a student, albeit a nervous one. “I’ve danced my youth away, now I think maybe these courses will help,” Chandni says.
Besides the beautician’s course, the school offers courses in cooking, driving, basic literacy and spoken English, among others. Enrolment stands at 27, and the students come on weekends only.
“This never feels like a school to us,” says Shehzadi. “It is much of a comfort zone, where we can be ourselves completely. I wish we could have experienced this when we were children too.”
However, activist Mehlab Jameel believes that such initiatives can only provide temporary relief to wounds that are symptomatic of a larger problem.
“It’s not as if such an initiative has never happened before,” Mehlab says. “Some in the community feel that the idea of having separate transgender schools will only segregate the community from society rather than telling society to accept them. It’s not as if they don’t have access to schools; it is surviving the school years that is the difficult part.”
The young activist says that many transgender people who have attended mainstream schools have faced extensive bullying and harassment, by students and teachers. “While everyone is vulnerable to bullying, the transgender community is much more vulnerable.”
In the end, it’s an unsustainable project, Mehlab insists, adding that when the government learns about such projects, it derails the conversation and tries to dodge its responsibilities, saying that there are other solutions available.
“Then again, there is no real alternative either. It does provide some relief like, for example, adult and old transgender persons can take part in courses. This is mainly because they are being educated a little too late.”
For Asif the situation is black or white. “There are some who believe that only they have the sole responsibility of helping others in their community. “But I have the support of many others within the community, especially the younger activists who support this initiative.”