I marveled at her brazenness. In a pink shalwar kameez (a traditional Pakistani dress), a transgender woman boldly approached me in the crowded Liberty Market in Lahore. Local pop music was playing in a nearby store, and her hips swayed ever so slightly. She almost danced to the song as she walked. She was tall, taller than most men. I saw the stubble of facial hair pushing from under her heavy makeup. Large metal bangles clanged against each other on her wrists. She pleaded in Urdu for money, but without a tone seeking pity. It was difficult to reconcile her strength of presence in public with traditional notions of how men and women should behave in her Islamic country. She was a khawaja sira, and she is part of a quiet movement challenging gender roles in Pakistani society.
There are around 300,000 members of the transgender community and they endure systemic discrimination. Women like the one I encountered at the market earn income by begging and dancing, and sometimes sex work. In Lahore and other major cities, they knock on car windows asking for money as they weave through the congested traffic. They approach customers who have wallets in hand in busy shopping areas. It is a challenging existence, full of hardship, yet khawaja siras in Lahore are among the most fortunate in the country. They feel safe enough to be in public at all. In the more conservative north, many transgender people do not leave their homes during daylight hours for fear of harassment and violence.
All around Pakistan, khawaja siras traditionally dance for tips at birth celebrations and weddings. When a child is born, they may sing songs of joy and bless the health and long life of the infant. Puzzlingly, they are a symbol of good luck for the newborn. They also dance flirtatiously with men at weddings to entice guests to participate in music and festivities. Their dances serve to bring fertility to the new couple. Khawaja siras are important figures at such social events while remaining in the periphery in actual society.
This dancing woman at Liberty Market embodied so many paradoxes in Pakistan, a country that is modernizing in so many ways, yet remains deeply entrenched in Islamic tradition.
Hijrais the Culture, Khawaja Sira is the Person
Khawaja siras navigate complicated identity politics. Qamar Naseem, a transgender and public health activist with a local NGO called Blue Veins, described their situation to me over the phone from Peshawar. The Pakistani transgender community as a whole is called hijra. The former term of “shemale” adopted by the transgender community has been replaced with khawaja sira to refer to individuals within this hijra culture. This can refer to a cross-dressing man, a gay man or a person born male anywhere on the sexual spectrum. Although surveys indicate about half of Pakistanis perceive khawaja siras as born intersexed, only about 1% of the hijra community is actually born hermaphroditic.
In unfortunate circumstances, they are also called khusras, which is Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu for “eunuch.” It is a derisive and derogatory term. Aside from its application to transgender women, it is used to shame men who act too effeminate or bosses who act too weak. Its targeted use reminds men to be masculine enough and reminds transgender people where they belong.
Although Pakistan has transgender men who were born female, this article focuses on those born male who identify as female. This focus is due in large part to the lack of public presence of those born female, impeding research for this article. Interestingly, Naseem sees the comparable ease of the female to male transition as an issue of class. “Since it is more acceptable for a man to live independently than a woman in Pakistan, upper-class women who choose to live as men have more freedom than those born male who want to live as women,” he says.
Transgender Pakistanis are commonly shunned by their families and expelled from their homes, which introduces a lifetime of both discrimination and violence
Historically, khawaja siras have not always experienced oppression. During the Moghul rule of the Indian subcontinent, they enjoyed respect as trustworthy royal insiders because they were seen as nonthreatening to power holders. They were the protectors of female quarters in courts. They were advisers on political councils and privy to intelligence information, and even seen as holy bridges to God.
British colonial law of the 19th century and the later rise of Islamic fundamentalism transformed their status entirely. Under the British, the 1860 Penal Code punished sodomy with a prison sentence. The first Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 categorized transgender people as members of a “criminal tribe.” The latter legislation was meant to punish those who were “habitually criminal” due to their genetic makeup (including thieves, murderers and prostitutes). Then, the low status of khawaja siras was ossified through the then President Muhammad Zia-al-Haq’s“shariazation” of the country, starting in 1977. The impact of shariazation plagues today’s khwaja siras still.
Danger in the Streets, Danger in the Home
Transgender Pakistanis are commonly shunned by their families and expelled from their homes, which introduces a lifetime of both discrimination and violence. Due to this lack of family support, khawaja siras often live together in communal housing under a guru or a mother figure who takes care of household members. Such colonies offer members not only housing, but also the social and emotional support they need. There have been claims that some gurus may push young khawaja siras into sex work as a means of financially contributing to expenses, but as a whole, these homes function as the only means of supportive housing for them. Naseem explained that such colonies are necessary because when khawaja siras try to rent alone, landlords offer them the worst of housing options, and charge them far higher rents because they know they are in a precarious situation. Their “housing [challenges] often mean they can’t secure access to running water, so even the smallest of things, like personal hygiene, is a problem,” he says.
Some khawaja siras flee their homes to escape child marriage. Naseem describes child marriage as a large problem for transgender community members because parents force khawaja sirasto marry at early signs of gender non-conformism. There is an idea in the northern areas that marriage will “convert” young khawaja siras to their assigned gender identity. Biological males will identify as male as soon as they see the children they have produced, and biological females won’t want to be male anymore as soon as they get pregnant.
Without the security of the traditional family unit, a lot of abuse is directed toward khawaja siras. The nonprofit Trans Action Alliance, through which I met Naseem, says that at least 49 khawaja siras have been killed and 390 raped from 2015 to 2016 in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkwha alone (one of four provinces in the country). Trans Action reports that six of its eight leaders have been targeted for rape. The precarious safety of khawaja siras took the national spotlight in 2009, when police in the community of Taxila, outside Islamabad, reportedly assaulted and raped a group of transgender dancers. The group living arrangements of khawaja siras make them easy targets for such mass attacks.
A notorious case of violence against khawaja siras became prominent on social media in October 2016 because it was recorded. On the disturbing video, five men in Sialkot are seen restraining and flogging a transgender woman with a belt as she was tied to a bed. There are times in the video when an attacker’s foot pins down the victim’s neck and head and he twists her arm behind her back. The five men were charged with torture while another five were investigated. The men ran an alleged extortion gang, although the attack leader claimed he was a friend helping the victim learn to refrain from “bad habits”. Witnesses, other khawaja siras living with the victim, say the attackers assaulted them for hours and shaved some of their heads. The video is brutal.
What happened in Sialkot last year is also notable because it even became a story at all(so many other acts of violence are ignored by the media) and because officials actually followed up with an investigation. Such an official investigation was not the case in the May 2016 death of 23-year-old Alesha (khawaja siras often use just one name to hide their identities).
Alesha was a transgender board member of Trans Action Alliance and a vocal activist against sexual exploitation. She was shot seven times and died at a Peshawar hospital after medical staff deliberated for hours over whether to put her in the male or female emergency ward. Some reports claim that she did not receive emergency care for over six hours after her arrival at the hospital. Her friends, who brought her to the hospital, including Naseem, wanted her in the female ward. However, women there demanded she be moved to the male ward, where she was also harassed. She eventually had an operation for her gunshot wounds in a non-emergency VIP ward, which was not properly equipped with surgery equipment.
Frazana Jan, one of several transgender friends who rushed Alesha to the hospital, said that hospital visitors and some staff mocked them. Their harassers asked for seductive dances and even sexual favors, and also asked for Jan’s phone number. This all happened as Alesha bled to death from her gunshot wounds.
Alesha was abandoned by her family at age 11. At the time of her death, she was living with the president of Trans Action. Her funeral procession from Naseem’s family home was the country’s first transgender funeral in broad daylight. Although local politicians attended, no officials are known to have investigated the hospital staff in her death. Her killer pleaded not guilty and was being held without bail at the time of writing.
Impediments to health care for khawaja siras like Alesha are troubling when the rate of gender-based violence against them is so high. Furthermore, the rate of HIV among khawaja siras could be as much as 100 times the national average. Recent studies document a wide range in prevalence, from 17.5% to 41%, as condoms are expensive and difficult to find in Pakistan. When stories like Alesha’s come to light, khawaja siras are less likely to seek out both emergency and preventative medical care.
Being born transgender in Pakistan is dangerous business.
The Right Side of the Law, the Wrong Side of the Gender Binary
One of the many paradoxes of transgenderism in Pakistan is that, despite the innumerable hardships khawaja siras face, the country is actually a pioneer for transgender rights in Asia and the Islamic world. Pakistan has among the most expansive Supreme Court protections and the best funding for transgender rights on the continent.
A watershed 2009 Supreme Court decision gave khawaja siras the right to vote and run for public office. Judicial activism has been helpful to the transgender cause, such as that of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. He is known for promoting various social causes by using a judicial maneuver called “suo motu notice,” which allows the court to intervene on its own when other branches of government fail to address legal problems. Using this maneuver, the Supreme Court also determined in 2012 that khawajasiras could not be denied property inheritance.
The Election Commission of Pakistan registered 97 transgender voters in Rawalpindi after the Supreme Court decision, and khawaja siras voted for the first time in the 2012 elections. Shahana Abbas Shani of the Pakistan She-Male Association has even called for seat quotas in the national assembly for khawaja siras running for public office. Arif, or Madam Boota, a dancer, announced her independent candidacy in Jhang City in October 2016. Counter intuitively, she seemed to enjoy local community support after her announcement but the transgender community did not back her because she did not consult with them.
More recently, it seems the progress for transgender rights persists. On April 26, a Peshawar high court specified 2% affirmative action employment in the civil service, including for transgender minorities, following other court decisions in other parts of the country since 2012. Previously, the only government work khawaja siras publicly could obtain was as tax collectors in Karachi’s upper class Clifton neighborhood. Using the same assertiveness as beggars in Lahore, the government employees would make a spectacle on the doorsteps of non-payers, clapping and singing to shame them into paying their taxes. There is talk of expanding khawaja siras’ roles in tax collection. However, Naseem has found that “khawaja siras are employed only in temporary and often low wage jobs.”
In an unexpected turn in favor of transgender protections, the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa recently allocated 200 million rupees of its annual budget in a special fund for the protection of khawaja siras. The government is supposed to appoint a chief minister for the Special Committee on the Rights of Transgender Persons.
The Transgender Protection Act of 2017 currently in the Senate is a private member bill introduced in January 9 by Senator Babar Awan. Hemodeled it after similar Indian legislation, but it is actually less restrictive. In India, those who are gender nonconforming are screened by a doctor and a psychologist, who jointly decide if the person is transgender. This screening process is absent in Pakistan’s version of the federal bill.
Putting Identities into Boxes
Still, a country can’t protect a population that it can’t identify. Consequently, gender identification on individual identity cards and the national census has been a looming issue.
As of this year, Pakistani national identity cards and the national census allow for a “third gender” option. The national government has granted the transgender community its own gender category within Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). This means that khawaja sirascan now be identified as male transgender, female transgender or intersex on their national identification cards. The Supreme Court ordered the creation of a commission to measure the number of transgender Pakistanis in the country, as estimates range from 80,000 to as a high as 500,000. However millions of census cards were distributed without the third gender column because the government printed them before the high court decision. Pakistan counted transgender people in the national census for the first time in March this year.
Activists highlight the personal conflict they face in labeling their gender in Pakistan. They may want to identify as female, but the social privileges attached to manhood incentivize identifying as male. For example, national identity cards require them to register under a father’s last name, when many may prefer to use their guru’s last name.
Or, if they self identify as female, they face more obstacles in performing the religious pilgrimage to Mecca on their own. Activists are particularly concerned about this since khawaja siras may have been denied pilgrimage visas by the Saudi government. Officially, there is no ban on transgender Muslims like there is on homosexual ones, but at least one Saudi diplomat in Islamabad allegedly instructed embassy employees to deny transgender applicants pilgrimage visas.
On a larger scale, how does one define being transgender without the cultural trappings of that identity, e.g. living under a guru, dancing for a living and dressing female? By forcing khawaja siras to define themselves, are we also encouraging them to adopt the norms and social behaviors associated with the hijra lifestyle? If the purpose of hijra acceptance is to break down gender lines altogether, then creating a neat third box may not help foster the idea of a gender spectrum in Pakistan.
Charting Unclear Rights in an Islamic Land
The future relationship between transgenderism and Islam in Pakistan is unclear. According to prevailing Islamic ideology, an intersexual baby is assigned a gender at birth, typically female. The outlook for the protections of khawaja siras, despite courts’ continued expansion of transgender protections, is nebulous since the Quran only recognizes the male and female sexes..
Today, most khawaja siras pray in their own homes. “They may go to mosques on Fridays, but they have to wear male clothes,” says Naseem. He says this may be safe because everyone knows them in their community, but they would not dare pray in a new area. There have been reports of khawaja siras having to prove their religion by answering questions about Islam at the entrance of mosques.
Last year, activists raised money to help build a more transgender-friendly mosque on the outskirts of Islamabad, the Rehmatulil Alameen mosque. They hoped that by financially contributing to the construction, local worshipers would permit them to more easily pray there. When the local community fought back, authorities discovered that the mosque was being built on illegally obtained land and the project was rejected altogether.
In two surprising public decisions, Pakistani clerical bodies have also decided in favor of transgender religious protections. Although not legally binding, 50 clerics in Pakistan issued a religious decree in June 2016 allowing transgender people to inherit property, have a religious burial and marry if there is a clear male or female sex. This decree also discouraged mocking or harassing those who are transgender. At the same time, a small clerical body in Lahore known as Tanzeem Ittehad-i-Ummat declared transgender marriages legal under Islamic law.
Some steps forward within small religious circles may or may not indicate improved protections for khawaja siras in the future. Public opinion regarding LGBT politics is complex in the Islamic world. The Pew Research Center stated that, of 39 countries studied in 2013, Pakistan was one of the least open-minded regarding homosexuality, with 87% of those surveyed saying “homosexuality should not be accepted by society.” Yet, a survey by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association  reported that 30% of Pakistanis thought “same-sex marriage [should] be legal” and that 60% would not be concerned if a “neighbor were gay or lesbian.”Such surveys based on self-reporting are not always reliable and are not able to take into account opinions regarding those men on the gender spectrum who may be married with a family, or who engaged in gender spectrum lifestyles. “Khawaja siras are a kind of blessing for such men, because they can hide under the transgender population,” Naseem says.
It’s All So New
Such conflicting views of the transgender community beg a question: Can views of khawaja siras be changed in Pakistan?
Evidence from the U.S. indicates that individuals can alter transphobic perceptions. Social science has always shown that prejudice is deeply rooted, requiring both legal and generational changes to be alleviated. However, professors David Broockman and Joshua Kalla found in their door-to-door canvassing study last year that simply talking about the perspectives of those in the transgender community for just 10 minutes with an interviewer, whether transgender or not, reduced prejudice. In fact, the level of prejudice among the studied Americans in Miami was reduced for at least three months, and it also increased support for antidiscrimination laws. Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania explained to Science Magazine that opinions on the comparably new topic of transgender people “may not be fully crystallized, thus potentially making them easier to persuade on this issue than other well-established controversies, such as gay marriage.” Essentially, the idea of being transgender is so new that people haven’t had as much time to form strong opinions against it, as they have against homosexuality.
Although the views of Americans in South Florida and of Pakistanis may not be comparable, the idea that one could alter perceptions in a positively constructed 10-minute conversation is compelling.
The transgender women of Pakistan live lives of paradoxes. Khawaja siras are marginalized in every sense, yet they are dance performers at the most important life events. In larger cities, they assertively beg in public while also hiding from threats of profound violence. They need to self-categorize to further their legal protections, but such categories also serve to constrict their identities. Many are not even clear where they stand within their own religion. They witness the creation of laws increasingly in their favor, while daily stigma against them endures. They show us that legal progress is not the same as social progress. Some could say that Pakistan has a love-hate relationship with its hijra community. Naseem offered me an apt analogy when I asked about how the average person views khawaja siras like the one I met in the market. He said Pakistanis might love a song, but hate the singer.
*Image Credit: Trans Action Pakistan