For the estimated 2,700 transgender people in the city of Islamabad, Pakistan, the right to worship freely has never been ensured. They are often kicked out of mosques, or forced to sit in the wrong section, the Independent reports. In some cases, according to the Express Tribune, transgender people are not even allowed to stand outside places of worship for fear of having the police called on them.
In Pakistan, cultural stigma against transgender people runs as deep as the Arabian Sea, but one group of activists is trying to change that. The Shemale Association For Fundamental Rights (SAFFAR) plans to open an LGBT-friendly mosque in the suburbs of Islamabad. The organization has already secured nearly 7 lakh rupees ($7,000) for construction on the country’s most inclusive space of worship to-date.
“The main reason for building this mosque is to convey a message to our society that people who are transgender are also Muslim, they too have a right to offer prayers in a mosque, to recite or teach the Holy Quran, and to preach Islam,” Nadeem Kashish, the founder of SAFFAR, told the Express Tribune.
Kashish — who prefers to use the male pronoun — also said that he believed the stigma against transgender people was more prevalent in Muslim communities than in Hindu, Christian, and Jewish ones.
This reality is not only reflected in Pakistan, but in the United States as well. A Pew Research Center study from 2013 found that 84% of LGBT adults believed Islam was “unfriendly toward people like them,” compared to under 50% for Judaism and Protestantism. Overall, only 3% of LGBT Americans believed that society was accepting of people who identify as transgender.
According to the SAFFAR Facebook page, the mosque initiative is part of the transgender community’s “sustainable struggle for their fundamental rights.” It will be big enough to accommodate up to 1,000 people, and will be “open to anyone who wishes to offer prayers and not attached to any particular sect,” according to the Independent.
Pakistan is home the world’s second largest population of Muslims, and accounts for roughly 11% of the world’s Muslims. The country with the largest population of Muslims — Indonesia — has also experimented with inclusive, LGBT- and trans-friendly mosques in the past.
The world’s “first transgender mosque” was founded in 2008 by Shinta Ratri in Indonesia, as both a place of worship and teaching (a madrassa). Called the Pondok Pesantren Waria, the mosque and prayer school served as a sanctuary for 30-40 transgender women before shutting down in February 2016. The reason? Threats from the Islamic Jihad Front.
In Pakistan, SAFFAR founder Kashish is hopeful. “We know our religion is against of all kinds of discrimination and hatred and teaches us lessons of unity, love and peace,” he said.