Trans lives and Exclusion in Pakistan is a never ending misery

Trans lives and exclusion in Pakistan is a never ending misery, has become a burning issue and people are now ready to talk about it. Located on social margins, trans lives (variously – popularly – referred to as Khwaja sira, Hijra, Khusra) are characterized by extreme precarity, dispossession and exclusion in Pakistan. Living on the intersection of multiple vulnerabilities and exclusions – including access to social, cultural and legal rights/justice along with stigma and discrimination, this brings added burden on their time that needs to be apportioned between physical, intellectual and emotional labour involved in seeking sustenance and constantly negotiating with a hetero-normative patriarchy. 

In terms of normative understanding, the transgender identity is defined in multiple ways in Pakistan. Some refer to it as those people that identify with a different gender as opposed to the one they are physically born with, while for others, Khwaja Sira is an umbrella term that encompasses all gender-variant identities, often referred to, in the country, as the ‘third-gender’.

In South Asia, “hijra” or “khusra” is a subculture on its own with specific rituals, norms, traditions, and as some say, a language called Farsi kalam. A politer expression for those who are born in the third gender is Khwaja Sira. The terms, however, are broadly and commonly used for transgender women as well as the intersex population. There is little awareness amongst the difference between the two and the law does not clearly differentiate between them either.

Since discussions around sexual orientation and gender identity are mostly considered a taboo, conversation around transgender people and their lives are generally scant. Despite being legally recognized as the third gender, transgender and intersex people continue to seek a respectable social status. Many people regard a child with a gender-variant identity as a curse from God and they are often disowned by their families and taken in by isolated yet close-knit hijra communities.

Pakistan is one of the few countries that constitutionally recognises the ‘third gender’. Hence, this community of Khwaja Siras, consists of intersex people, transgender men and also transgender women; those whose assigned sex was male but identify more as female and also of those men who believe that they were born with “a woman’s soul.” That said, mandates of nondiscrimination and tolerance are not enough to disrupt hetero-normative hegemony, because they still tend to treat sexual subalterns as “a ‘perversion’ to be tolerated within the framework of quasi-liberal democracy. Tolerance, hence, is often deployed to deal with the excess that formal equality has failed to accommodate.

While over the decades in Pakistan, a country with a population of over 95 per cent Muslims and a largely accepted lingua franca (Urdu) – diversity is being gradually recognized at state level with a whole spectrum of communities, languages – and to a lesser extent religions other than Islam are more easily accepted. However, it is in the area of persons with Sexual Orientations & Gender Identities (SOGI) that progress both in thinking and action is woefully scarce.

The term “transgender” is an umbrella term that includes transsexuals, transvestites, inter-sex persons, and roughly all those who doesn’t conform to the traditional model of sex/gender. “Transgender” is a general, relatively, inclusive term. In Pakistan the term ‘KhwajaSira,” or the term “Hijra” are often used as umbrella expressions to signify non-compliant individuals to traditionalist/prevalent gender binaries/constructions and who expresses or present a breaking and blurring of culturally prevalent, socially sanctioned and accepted gender roles. It includes pre-operative, post-operative and non- operative transsexual people who strongly identify with gender opposite to their biological sex (Chakrapani, 2010).

The word “eunuch” is derived from the Greek word “Euneukhos” which literally means “bed chamber attendant”. It is in this sense that during the later Mughal period they were put in charge of harems. As eunuchs were sexually incapable, due to emasculation (whether voluntarily or under force), they were considered suitable guards for harems.

That said, the umbrella term ‘transgender,’ may hide the complexity and diversity of the various subgroups of gender-variant people in India and may hinder development of subgroup-specific transphobia prevention, care interventions, and policies. For example, some KhwajaSira activists may prefer others calling them ‘Khwaja Sira’ and not to subsume Khwaja Siras/Hijras under the broader category ‘transgender.’ One reason for this is that they feel Khwaja Siras/Hijras have a long history, culture and tradition in South Asia, which would not be evident or which might be overlooked when using the catch-all term ‘transgender.’

The word “Hijra” is Urdu, derived from the Arabic root “hjr” in its sense of “leaving one’s tribe,” and has been borrowed into other South Asian languages such as Punjabi, Hindi, Bangla, Gujrati and Marathi. The Urdu and Hindi expression “Hijra” and Urdu expression Khwaja Sira may alternately be romanized as hijira, hijda, hijada, hijara, hijrah.

Hijra traditions and community can be traced back 4000 years in the sub-continent. And joining this group is an acutely serious affair, which is life altering and offers few personal choices; afterwards this one personal choice has been made. The Khwajasira community have attempted to appropriate a hierarchical social veneer, rituals, folklore and legends in order to articulate a sense of self-validation and carve out a niche for themselves in the traditional social structures.

Amongst the rites of inclusion into the Hijra community include a ritual for surgically intervening in cases of trans-sexualism so as to effect a ‘sex change’ from male towards female. This gender re-assignment or in plain words castration is a bizarrely hazardous procedure. Castration couples with rituals of physical transformation for the new hijra community entrants. As the male exterior is scraped off for the female, the initiates would neither cut their hair nor try to shave their faces. The new initiates would receive a special ‘facial’ from hijra experts who would thread away the facial hair. Then there’s the breast augmentation operation, if a new initiate can afford it or her own or her ‘owner’ or ‘guru,’ is willing to invest in her that can cost anything up to 60,000 rupees.

In 2009, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that no Pakistani laws should allow for the disenfranchisement of transfolk from their basic rights. It also called upon National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) in Pakistan to issue National Identity Cards (CNICs) that classified their sex as Khwaja Sira, female Khwaja Sira or Mukhannas. Following this ruling, they could exercise their right to vote and went on to take part in the politics of the country contesting for Federal and Provincial legislature on popular vote. Globally, the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity has emerged as a prominent theme in the global human rights discourse. The Yogyakarta Principles, propagated in 2006 by a group that included human rights activists, judges, academics, NGO officials, and a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, call on the international community to recognize that “human beings of all sexual orientations and gender identities are entitled to the full enjoyment of all human rights,” and that “each person’s self-defined sexual orientation and gender identity is integral to their personality and is one of the most basic aspects of self-determination, dignity and freedom[1].”

Regionally, as in the West, various identity groups within the broader South Asian Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity (SOGI) rights community have proffered competing visions of equality and competing strategies for advocacy. And, as in the West, these divisions often have highlighted differences grounded in class and gender.

In Pakistan, the ‘khwaja sira,’ or ‘hijras’ are not welcomed or particularly respected as equal members of the society, by the population at large, but they are accepted for their traditional social roles of performing ad hoc, or by invitation, dances at weddings, births, and other ceremonial functions. In some cases, they are sought for blessings, owing to a pervasive belief that ‘being asexual” they possess certain spiritual prowess specific to them; that they deserve charity, protectionist and welfarist attention (rather than being recognized as equal right-holders) and, given their (perceived) irredeemable “sexual” and gender predicament, they may possess special spiritual prowess to bless the kind hearts who may support them with tangible help. Conversely, it is feared that therefore, transgender persons can curse. A transgender person is, thus, simultaneously commodified, either as an object of pity or that of fear.

At the same time, breakdown of extended family living styles and rise of nuclear families, has reduced the demand for many of these historical performances, and thus many hijras engage in sex work and alms seeking as a source of income.19 Even though they are often the objects of social disdain, hijras’ long-standing place in Indian society seems to explain the success of their constitutional and legislative claims for equal rights.

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