YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia (Reuters Life!) - Wearing headscarves and reciting the Koran, students at an Indonesian Islamic school look like ordinary women practicing their faith in the holy month of Ramadan, but they are actually transvestites.
Breaking with the norm in the world's most populous Muslim nation, Mujahadah al-Fatah provides a special program for Muslim transvestites during Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar when religious fervor intensifies.
Teachers said the program was aimed at helping the transvestites learn more about their faith, with the hope that they would start living like ordinary men.
"We call them to return to what Allah taught us, and pray to Allah to help them solve the problems they are facing," said Andi Yusuf, one of boarding school teachers.
Although they are largely tolerated by society, most Islamic schools in Indonesia ban transvestites, who are called "waria," a combination of Indonesian words for male and female, and who regularly appear on local television.
Mujahadah al-Fatah has been taking in transvestites for about 10 years now. This year, it set up twice-a-week classes during Ramadan, when practicing Muslims abstain from food, drink and sex during daylight hours, and more than 20 transvestites are attending.
Some students said they wanted solace from religion.
"In this holy month, I want to get closer to God and hope God will forgive me for all I have been doing because there is a bad image of our group in the community," said Novi, a transvestite.
Most of the students wear a headscarf and loose-fitting clothes that cover their body during prayers, as women are required to by Islam.
But a small number wear a sarong and cap to pray -- the attire for an Indonesian man.
"I hope there will be more similar programs like this in the future which can help us to know more about Islam," said Wulan, another transvestite.
Reporting by Reuters Television, editing by Miral Fahmy