Nazo, Nomi and Nadeem (Left to Right) sitting in Nadeem's room — Sarah Khan

Islamabad's transgenders seek to build 'inclusive' mosque

'We want an inclusive mosque where people from all religious sects, sexual orientations can pray as a community.'
Published December 4, 2016

Perched on the foothills of the Margallas, the shrine of Bari Imam overlooks the village of Noorpur Shahan on the outskirts of Islamabad.

A fetid stream, blackened with sewage, cuts through the ramshackle clutter of houses that make up this once picturesque settlement.

Noorpur Shahan is also home to a small transgender community, who live off the economy of the shrine, which attracts thousands of visitors each year.

"We are not welcome in nicer neighbourhoods, even if we can afford the rent, we are turned away. This neighbourhood is very poor and most residents are illegal squatters," says transgender activist Nadeem Kashish, introducing the neighbourhood.

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Kashish sits on a steel charpoy in his home in Noorpur Shahan. He is dressed in a men's button down shirt and jeans and prefers to be identified by the male pronoun.

His modest room, painted in pastel colours, is kept immaculately tidy. Kashish is surrounded by some friends from the transgender community and television reporters who have gathered to interview him.

He runs the Shemale Association for Fundamental Rights (Safar) and has been in the news lately, for plans to build a transgender friendly mosque.

The mosque is under construction. — Sara Khan
The mosque is under construction. — Sara Khan

Pakistan's trans community routinely faces discrimination and violence, and is also not entirely welcome in mosques.

It's not just Pakistan; the Saudi government also recently stated that transgender persons would not be issued visas to travel to Saudi Arabia for Umrah and Hajj.

"While we are welcome in shrines and Imambargahs, we face resistance in trying to enter mosques. When we do go to mosques, we do so discreetly, wearing men's clothing. It feels wrong, almost fraudulent," explains Kashish.

Kashish holds clerics responsible for excluding transgender people from religious life in Pakistan.

"They tell us that we have been cursed by Allah, that we are from the tribe of Lut, only worthy of hate. My heart does not accept this. We are Allah's creation and He could not have ordained for us to be left out of the fold of Islam."

He argues that society views the trans community as sexually deviant and morally corrupt but makes no attempt to preach Islamic values to them.

"People travel long distances to preach Islam but never approach transgender people who live in their own neighbourhoods. We are never even mentioned in the Friday sermon," he went on to say.

Shilpa has moved to Noorpur Shahan from Faisalabad. — Sara Khan
Shilpa has moved to Noorpur Shahan from Faisalabad. — Sara Khan

The land for the mosque, which has been named "Rehmatul Alameen Masjid (Blessing for Humanity Mosque) was donated by the local community and Kashish borrowed some money to start construction. His friends in the trans community have also contributed funds towards the cause.

"Those who work as dancers have made large donations but even those who work as beggars have donated funds for the mosque," said Kashish.

Construction for the mosque began with a loan of Rs0.2 million, which Kashish acquired from a neighbour.

However, when boys from the neighbourhood went out to collect donations, they were arrested by the police.

Seeing their fundraising efforts thwarted, residents of the neighbourhood decided to pool their resources.

So far, Kashish said, Rs0.6 million has been spent on the mosque, most of which was donated by people of the neighbourhood and his friends in the trans community.

The construction is also being carried out by the neighbours, some of whom are paid for their work but most are volunteers.

"Kicked out of our own homes for being different as children, we just hope to find sanctuary in God's home," Kashish adds wistfully.

But the project to build a mosque which would welcome transgender people, he contends, has been wrongly portrayed as a mosque exclusively for trans Muslims.

Instead it is a community initiative in which the trans community is also participating.

"We just wanted an inclusive mosque where people from all religious sects and all sexual orientations can come together to pray as a community," says a modest Kashish.

We are Allah's creation and He could not have ordained for us to be left out of the fold of Islam

Kashish's neighbour Nomi recalls that as a transgender woman, she was mocked whenever she tried entering the local mosques.

She sits playing with the ends of a scarf draped modestly over her head.

"I am a Muslim but no one taught me how to read the Quran. I memorised verses and prayers on my own. Had this society not ridiculed me, who knows, I could have been an Islamic scholar," she says.

As Nomi talks, another transgender woman peaks in from the door and Kashish invites her in.

"Come in Shilpa! Now that we're getting our own mosque it's time to change your Hindu name!" Kashish quips.

The holiest place for Muslims excludes transgenders — Dawn
The holiest place for Muslims excludes transgenders — Dawn

Everyone knows that castrated men were once the guardians of the Holy Kabah but now the Saudis are denying us Hajj

"Perhaps I should start calling myself Mohabat (Love)," Shilpa retorts with a giggle as she settles on the bed gracefully.

She says that like every Muslim, she also wishes to go for Hajj and take her mother along, regretting that the Saudi government has banned transgender people from performing pilgrimage.

"Everyone knows that castrated men were once the guardians of the Holy Kaabah but now the Saudis are denying us Hajj."

Their friend Ashi, who is a Christian, is also actively raising funds for the mosque.

"I will sing and dance to raise funds for this mosque and beg at the shrine if I have to. My Muslim friends have given me so much love, I feel the least I can do is help them get a place of worship," Ashi says.

Other residents of Noorpur Shahan also appear to be supportive of the initiative of an inclusive mosque. Ghulam Rasool, an elderly man, sits collecting donations at the site of the mosque.

"The Wahabis have their own mosque here and so do the Shias, we wanted to build a mosque where people from all sects are welcome. The transgender community here live like good neighbours so there is no reason to exclude them," he said.

Isolated as it may be, the initiative to erect an all-inclusive place of worship is a refreshing symbol of pluralism that brings back the true spirit of communal worship.