Masjid Syed Gauhar Ali Shah Qadeem is a mosque frequented by travellers. In Delhi’s Rangpuri near India’s biggest international airport on a Friday afternoon, the mostly-tranquil white and green structure remains abuzz with the bustle of visitors, shopkeepers and locals who gather here for the prayers. After performing their wudu, most worshippers sit in the courtyard with two trees in the centre and temporary plastic toilets, PVC water tanks and clothes drying on a rope on the sidelines.
With typical minarets, loudspeakers and beggars, the mosque is not different from any other mosque in India, except the fact among the faithful are transgender people who assemble here every Friday to pray among mostly male worshippers. While the mainstream Islamic interpretations condemn homosexuality, Muslim hijras have historically had a much more nuanced and complicated relationship with Islam in South Asia.
While some worshippers at the Rangpuri mosque welcome Natasha, Diya and Joba —transgender women living in Mahipalpur—others are slightly taken aback by seeing them in their midst. Clad in kurta pajamas and sporting colourful keffiyeh among mostly white skullcaps, the trio are among the 20-odd transgender people who come to the 68-year-old mosque to offer Jumma Namaz, the holiest weekly prayer for Muslims.
Mohammmed Iqbal, the cleric at the helm of the mosque for the past 18 years, told me “Islam is about uniting everyone, not creating divisions,” including the transgender worshippers. The mosque was established in 1950 by his maternal grandfather Haji Qamar Khan and his brother Haji Gauhar Khan, to create a place of worship for the miners and labourers who used to work in the nearby Rangpuri Pahadi. Iqbal often visits transgender households to make sure they feel included in congregation and at religious events. “Everyone has the right to pray to their creator. I always try my best to take the message of God to everyone, whoever it is”, he said.
Natasha, the de facto leader of the group, took me to the apartment she shares with six other transgender people in Mata Ki Chowki, a predominantly Hindu colony in nearby Mahipalpur. The dimly lit ground floor apartment has two rooms cramped with furniture, a small kitchen and a hall with unpainted walls. It is a congregation place for transgender people living in the area—the place where religion takes a backseat and gender identity is expressed through Bollywood songs and in-jokes about heterosexual people. “He is my new boyfriend,” said 28-year-old Natasha jokingly as she introduced me to her two roommates, her “daughter” and “granddaughter” according to the traditional hierarchies in their commune. On the stove is fish curry, which is served to me and others in the house.
“Koran mentions us and gives rights similar to every other descendants of Prophet Adam,” Natasha pointed out. “In the book, we are called by a beautiful Arabic term ‘Mukhannathun’”— men who resemble women. “But most people here use words like hijra and ‘chakka’”, she said.
Natasha said she was born to a low-income, conservative Muslim family in Kolkata, which kept her transgender identity secret from society. At age 10, she began to dress up in feminine clothes and use cosmetics, inviting scorn from the people who live in the same lane. “It was confusing as I didn’t like hanging around with boys, nor behaving like a boy. I would often pretend to be a bride in front of a mirror and would sometimes walk wearing the dupatta of other girls.”
Beatings from her brothers became a regular part of her life. “There was not a single day they didn’t beat me, sometimes with a stick or a belt. They wanted me to leave the home because their friends used to make fun of them.” To escape the torture, Natasha left her home at 14 and started living with some transgender people in Kolkata, who “accepted her as their own” and taught her to earn money by working as a housemaid at private homes. She moved to Delhi in 2010 and has been living in Mahipalpur since.
But Natasha said she still hasn’t escaped nosy neighbours in Delhi, who sometimes mock the group, either for being transgender or for being meat-eating Muslims. “When I leave home in my prayer attire, they will pass lewd comments,” she said. “When they ask me what I gain by taking the name of Allah, I tell them I do it to achieve peace in my heart just as they get by taking the name of Mata Rani.”
Not all mosques are as welcoming as Rangpuri. “Once we went to offer namaz in a mosque in Saket, but people didn’t let us enter,” Natasha said. “Even in this mosque, there have been instances when men didn’t want to stand in the same queue as us, though most of them are nice and invite us to pray along with them.”
Mohammad Arif, a fellow worshipper at Masjid Syed Gauhar Ali Shah Qadeem, said that most people don’t have a problem with the transgender group as they are polite and talk nicely to everyone in the area. “Allah wants everyone to take his name. Even the birds pray to him. Why can’t they? God has created them like this. It’s no fault of theirs.”
At the mosque, Natasha and her friends donated some money and gave alms to the beggars assembled near the biryani stall outside the courtyard. Muslims give zakat, or alms in the name of someone who has passed away. “For me, it’s my father and my grandmother—the person who loved me the most in the world,” Natasha told me. “I request the beggars to pray for their salvation.”
Natasha, who identifies as a Sunni Muslim, added, “Even if someone shot me down I will say there is no god but Allah and Mohammad is his Prophet. In the tough times that I faced, I didn’t get angry at Allah. He can make your lives beautiful in a moment, but you have to withstand the test of life.”
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