Bangladesh’s first religious school for transgender people has opened in Dhaka.
More than 150 students will study Islamic and vocational subjects free of charge at the privately-funded seminary, or madrassa, in the capital.
Many in the transgender community identify as a third gender which is now officially recognised in the country.
They have the right to vote and to stand for election, but conservative social attitudes still make it hard for them to access jobs and education.
Some migrate to cities and support themselves by singing and dancing at weddings and births, by begging or through sex work.
The government says Bangladesh has about 10,000 hijras, as transgender people are known in South Asia. Other estimates put the number at more than 50,000.
Almost all have transitioned from male to female.
‘No age limit’
School officials, local councillors and hijra community leaders attended the opening day at the Dawatul Koran Third Sex Madrassa, which is near Lohar bridge in the Kamrangirchar area of Dhaka. Classes in the three-storey building begin on Saturday.
Until now there has been no school exclusively for transgender people in Bangladesh.
People of any age in the hijra community can enrol at the school. It is hoped that after studying there, students will have a chance to enter a number of different professions.
“Whether or not someone is of the third sex is identified at a fairly mature age. That’s why we don’t set any age limit. Anyone can be admitted here as soon as a transgender person is identified, no matter what age they are,” the madrassa’s education and training secretary, Mohammad Abdul Aziz Hussaini, told the BBC Bengali service.
One new student at the school, Shilpy, said most of the trans community were illiterate.
“No one wants to hire us. If we had some education, we could have worked somewhere better. There is no education system.
“That is why we still do what our ancestors did and earn money by dancing and singing,” Shilpy, whose name means “artist” in Bengali, told the BBC.
‘We want to walk with dignity’
Shilpy went to school until the age of nine, but dropped out because of bullying.
“When I realised I was a transgender person, then everyone in the school hated me, was afraid, criticised me.
“That’s why I didn’t study any more. If there was a separate reading system for us, no one would tease.”
In Bangladesh, hijras suffer from neglect in the family and socially, said Mr Hussaini.
“If a transgender child is born in a family, the parents often do not want to accept them. What else will outsiders do? But they are not to blame.
“We want them not to be a burden to the society. We decided to set up this madrassa… so that they can learn the Koran and work with dignity.”
Shilpy welcomes initiatives – whether government or private – to spread education among the third gender population.
“We also want to be like other people, to walk with dignity. We also want to stand on our own two feet. If I get a chance, I will go that way.”