An impromptu celebrity performance, students dressed to impress and plenty of selfies — it appeared to be a graduation like any other.
But this Sunday, the graduation of The Gender Guardian’s first batch of students marked a milestone for the transgender community.
17 students received their diploma certification for formal education and skill-based training after completing short courses at the newly opened school.
Although the focus is more on skills-based training, such as cooking, beautician courses and stitching, there were students like Khushboo — thrown out of her family home when she was still in class eight — who are getting formal education.
“We started this school with the purpose of educating and uplifting the transgender community that has otherwise been marginalised in society,” founder Asif Shahzad says. “People think transgender people can either sing and dance or beg on the streets, but nobody has ever explored their talent fully.”
Located in Lahore’s Model Town area, the Gender Guardian offers 12 years of academic matriculation from primary level to college, in addition to offering vocational training. Students are also given legal aid each weekend by volunteer lawyers who educate them about the basic legal rights of a transperson.
Shahzad initiated this venture in April of this year with a plan to provide a platform that would not only educate the transgender community but also help them enter mainstream society.
Shahzad adds: “When I started, I didn’t have any resources and was not acquainted with the Khwaja Sirah community. With the help of my co-founder, we developed the idea into a reality. I also wanted to do this for a better image of Pakistan, one where the country takes care of its minorities.”
The event started off with Quranic recitation, which was followed by a few speeches by students and teachers.
The graduating students hope to apply for jobs or set up businesses with the help of loans provided by the school, the government and other NGOs. Admissions for the next batch are now open.
Transgender activist, model and actress Kami Sid was a chief guest at the event and said she felt proud of the achievement.
“I feel really happy when our community is appreciated and recognised. When Asif Shahzad got in touch with me regarding this [school], I was sceptical at first. But when I saw the impact his project was having, I thought this was an important initiative. Now we can go beyond equality and start to talk about equity.”
Abrar ul Haq, another one of the chief guests, spoke at the ceremony and said, “When there’s a lack of education in a country, then it is easier to control people. The transgender community has suffered a lot. Their basic human rights have been denied. We have to change the thinking of our society, which is causing a disability. This is the first step taken in order to eradicate that disability from society.”
Upon insistence from the students, Haq sang a few of his famous songs for the crowd.
Dr. Amjad Saqib, the founder of Akhuwat, an organisation which provides small interest-free loans, was also present at the occasion. “The only way to end poverty and suffering from society is when the most marginalised communities and disadvantaged people are part of an inclusive society,” he said.
“It is highly commendable that the transgender community was given this platform and an opportunity. Because now they can be self-sufficient. The government has also promised them loans. This way they will be contributing and respected members of our society.”
With basic learning, vocational training, and awareness programmes, the Gender Guardian has given hope to the 30,000-strong transgender community in Lahore.
The graduation ceremony was held in collaboration with Exploring Future Foundation (EFF), Tour to World, CSC- Empowerment & Inclusion Programme, Go Green, LUMUN and Rahnuma.