A small Islamic school in Indonesia is providing a safe haven for the marginalised transgender community to pray during the holy month of Ramadan, its founder said on Thursday, calling for wider acceptance of LGBT+ people.
Muslims around the world are observing the month-long Ramadan - which began in early May - with fasting from dawn to dusk and extra prayers at mosques until the Eid al-Fitr celebrations in early June. Transgender people are often stigmatised when they pray in mosques, where women and men are segregated, said Shinta Ratri, who runs the Pesantren Waria al-Fatah school in the central Java city of Yogyakarta.
"We want to provide a safe space for the 'waria' because praying in mosques can feel very uneasy sometimes," said Ratri, using the Indonesian term which refers to transgender people. "We can express ourselves freely here. We can observe Ramadan and pray together, it is important for us Muslims in the holy month," the 57-year-old transgender woman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Billed as the world's only Islamic boarding school for transgender people, the institution founded in 2008 is a testament to the tolerant brand of Islam long practised in the world's most populous Muslim country. But a surge in anti-LGBT+ sentiments in recent years forced the school to temporarily shut in 2016 after it was mobbed by a group of Islamic hardliners.
It currently has 42 students, all transgender women who are mostly street performers or sex workers, who attend weekly prayers and classes about Islam taught by six Muslim preachers. The students can choose to dress as man or woman during prayers, Ratri said.
For Ramadan, the school has added extra Koran study sessions and special prayers at night, while it also holds fast-breaking meals at sunset for the students and the local community. "What we want to show is that we have the right to worship and we are accepted in Islam. We are transgender people but we do not forget our obligations as Muslims," said Ratri.
Human rights activists say religious conservatism is threatening to erode Indonesia's long-standing reputation for tolerance of minorities like for the transgender people. Homosexuality is not regulated by law in Indonesia, except in the ultra-conservative province of Aceh where same-sex acts are banned, but the country has a growing number of bylaws targeting LGBT+ people.
An Indonesian filmmaker received death threats after his latest movie, about a male dancer exploring his gender identity, was released domestically last month and sparked an online backlash that led to bans in some cities. For Ratri, her Ramadan prayer has been the same every year for many decades. "My prayer has always been very simple - that we can be accepted by everyone in the society and we are able to live together harmoniously," she said.
(With inputs from agencies.)