Al Fatah, which claimed to be the world’s only Islamic boarding school for transgender students, was long regarded as a symbol of the tolerant brand of Islam widely practiced in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.
But several months ago, amid a sudden backlash against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, a local hardline group called Islamic Jihad Front forced the school to close.
Despite the risk of retaliation, a small group of former students continue to quietly gather at the school building in the city of Yogyakarta every week to pray and study Islam.
“We want to prove that Islam accepts transgenders, that Islam is a blessing for all mankind,” Shinta Ratri, the leader of the prayer group, told AFP.
The closing of the school, which was founded in 2008, is one of the most visible signs of an alarming wave of intolerance sweeping across Yogyakarta — the country’s cultural heartland which had long been regarded as an open-minded, accepting city.
In recent times Islamic hardliners have halted a festival focusing on women’s issues and have targeted the Christian minority, seeking to close down churches and stop their community work.
Local police have sometimes been accused of standing back and letting hardliners carry out acts of intolerance, or even of working with them to do so.
– ‘Unity in diversity’ –
“Unfortunately in recent years, intolerant groups have been imposing their rigid beliefs on people,” said Agnes Dwi Rusjiyati, the local coordinator of activist group Bhinneka Tunggal Ika National Alliance.