Dragging the line

Published: June 13, 2010
Pakistan's transgender people are ready to play a greater role in mainstream society. How far are we willing to bend our perceptions of gender to accommodate them?

Pakistan's transgender people are ready to play a greater role in mainstream society. How far are we willing to bend our perceptions of gender to accommodate them?

Pakistan's transgender people are ready to play a greater role in mainstream society. How far are we willing to bend our perceptions of gender to accommodate them? Pakistan's transgender people are ready to play a greater role in mainstream society. How far are we willing to bend our perceptions of gender to accommodate them? Pakistan's transgender people are ready to play a greater role in mainstream society. How far are we willing to bend our perceptions of gender to accommodate them?

Straddling the roles of mainstream spokesperson and esoteric community leader, Bindiya Rana is both pragmatic and schmaltzy, aiming to persuade you with a mixture of ingratiating patriotism and vague humanism. It’s not hard to understand her draw as a spokesperson for the rights of the Khwaja Siras — transgender people — of Pakistan. Whether at an event organised by the Karachi government or on a television talk show, the President of the Gender Interactive Alliance (GIA) has a confident presence in the media that makes the aspirations of her community seem tantalisingly attainable, if only by glossing over the dividing factors that have kept it at the margins for so long.

The Gender Interactive Alliance is not the only welfare organisation working for the transgender people but it is the one which has made the most of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s interest in the community. Registered some time during the rapid-fire decisions of the Supreme Court that the transgender community be surveyed, given NICs which specify their gender as ‘other’, given small loans and have access to medical facilities, GIA is an emergency helpline of sorts for the transgender community. It provides medical aid to sufferers of Hepatitis and Aids, responds to distress calls from sex workers hounded by thugs, and counsels transgender people to stand up to bullies.

But a holistic vision to integrate transgender people into mainstream society, which GIA has vociferously espoused, is fairly recent and though Iftikhar Chaudhry is the benign face of the revolution, the unlikely originator is an Islamic jurist from Rawalpindi, Mohammad Aslam Khaki.

In Khaki’s hometown of Muzaffargarh, the transgender community has been displaced from its traditional occupations of singing, dancing and commercial sex work, because of increasing Islamisation and the MMA government. After policemen robbed and beat up ‘eunuchs’ at a marriage ceremony in Taxila in January 2009, Khaki made the case for the rights of transgenders in the Supreme Court: the right to dignity, to inheritance, and the right to live with their parents.

The Taxila incident was fairly banal as far as news of the transgender community goes but it served as a useful snapshot of the affliction of the community and of the relations between the ‘eunuchs’ and custodians of the law. Khaki has a clear if simplistic vision for these people — to bring them squarely into mainstream society: “They are people like us so they should be in mainstream society like us. I believe they are the golden asset of the nation because they are not tied down by their families. All they need is two square meals a day, some rest and work. They can run canteens in girls’ colleges, serve as guards in women’s police stations, they can even join the army.”

But mainstreaming might not go as swimmingly as Khaki expects. The very first injunction of the court pertaining to transgender people — to conduct a survey and compile facts and figures – has been difficult to implement. Khaki estimates that there are 80,000 eunuchs in Pakistan, Rana contends that there are 400,000 whereas Almas Bobby, a community leader in Rawalpindi, claims there are 500,000.

“It is nearly impossible to estimate their number because it is a highly mobile population,” says Tahir Khilji, who runs the NGO Vision in Lahore and has been working with transgender people since 1998.

As for the Supreme Court’s call for ID cards for people of ‘other’ gender (“We say thanks to the Chief Justice for this sweet decision,” says Rana), despite the rhetoric, little progress has been made. These ID cards are supposed to be the first step in the transformation of the Khwaja Siras from beggars and sex workers on the fringes of society to industrious citizens employed as tailors, beauticians, cooks and health workers contributing to the nation. “Society does not even give us a name,” says Rana, referring to the fact that Khwaja Siras don’t have ID cards. “Since we don’t have ID cards, we can’t get jobs.” Not entirely true, that. Many transgender people, including, by her own admission, Rana, have ID cards — just not with the correct gender on them.

Foremost on the list of desirable jobs is tax collection from loan defaulters. In a court ruling in November 2009, the Chief Justice, no doubt inspired by the tax collection model in India, suggested that Khwaja Siras be used to get back loans from defaulters. As the media picked up on the story, the suggestion created a stir not only in the hermetic community but in mainstream society. After extensive coverage of the issue, so far the cantonment board has taken 11 transgender people for tax collection with a promise of five more — a paltry number, but one which counts as a victory for Rana. ”We are employed on the same terms as any other contractual employee,” she says.

But not every supporter of transgender rights considers this a call for celebration. Tahir Khilji, who works in community development and helps transgender people realise their full potential fears that the SC judgment, instead of changing attitudes, is actually reinforcing stereotypes. “The idea is that if you want to pile shame on someone, the most potent way is to humiliate him through these people. The tax evader would feel internally ashamed that it is these people who are clapping at him.”

This is an attitude that has been internalised by the Khwaja Siras themselves. One community leader after the SC ruling declared, “If the tax evader is unable to pay up, we will tell him that he too is a Khwaja Sira.”

NADRA has been ordered to make separate identity cards for transgender people but progress has ground to a halt because of one significant caveat: all Khwaja Siras need to undergo a medical check-up before they can sign up as ‘other’. “Their gender needs to be determined on objective medical grounds,” says Khaki. “It’s not enough to simply say that they have a feminine soul.”

“If they want to do a medical test, they can go ahead with it,” says Almas Bobby, a community leader in Rawalpindi. “But nothing is really happening.” But in Karachi, the mood is different. “The Khwaja Siras of Pakistan have unanimously rejected this notion,” says Rana. “No one has the right to tell someone else what they are. I know what I am.”

At the root of their reluctance is the fear that medical examinations will stigmatise them further. Crucially, if the check-up consists of a simple physical examination without accompanying psychological evaluation, then many of these Khwaja Siras — who develop female traits by injecting themselves with hormones — will indeed show up as males — though their gender identity is female.  Another thorny issue: the definition of this third sex is mired in myth and shrouded in mystery. It is a population with subsets that refuse to intermingle and whose nomenclature changes with the region. In Sindh, this community calls itself Khwaja Siras, in Punjab there are Zenanas who anthropologically belong to travelling theatres and circuses, and one subset of this population, which does not mix with any other, are the hijras, who were patronised by the aristocracy and may or may not be castrated.

The proportion of natural hermaphrodites in these populations may be quite low. And while there is a lot of emphasis on ‘sex’, public discussions have adroitly avoided ‘sexuality’. Many homosexuals find refuge in the Khwaja Sira community and the recent ‘marriage’ between a man and a ‘transvestite’ in Peshawer illustrates society’s attitude towards sexual deviants. But Rana is deadpan when she declares, “We are living in an Islamic republic — no Khwaja Sira will want to violate laws and demand a right to marriage.”

Only marginally less surreal is Khaki’s declaration that transgender people have the right to marry people of the ‘opposite’ sex if they have any discernable sexual organs, no matter how malformed.

The third gender NIC has become a benchmark in the struggle for transgender rights but the question is, will that really help them towards bridge-building with mainstream society? Though the media has succeeded in mobilising public sympathy for their cause, in the medium term sharing spaces in education and the job market will be challenging since people in mainstream society are unable to truly appreciate the depth of their problems. The judicial activism of the Supreme Court smacks of ad hocism and though there is a scramble to get things done, the advocates of transgender rights remain blissfully oblivious to the real world problems and a thought process is conspicuous by its absence. While over-optimistic community leaders say that in the next five years no Khwaja Sira will be seen begging on the streets, government officials are accommodating them in jobs on the two per cent  disability quota — an offensive proposition.

Still, there is an optimism stemming from the fact that for the first time, transgender people are sharing spaces with scholars, journalists and politicians in the media. For a traditionally persecuted community, this is a huge positive change and it builds high hopes for the future.

“We are not any different from you people,” says Rana, “we are from amongst your kith and kin.” And despite all the references to vague, overarching ideals and the mawkish delivery, the truth of the statement moves one to agreement.

Published in the Express Tribune, June 13th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (3)

  • Comment
    Jun 16, 2010 - 7:15PM

    Finally express tribune “reports” on something outside the bounds of their social circles. “OMG Slims are the bestest. NEWS!”Recommend

  • Hasan Haider
    Jun 26, 2010 - 3:08AM

    The Supreme Court can try and give them some rights, whatever they’re really worth, but to get acceptance from people they need to be in mainstream conversation – and that’s much much harder, because they are obviously a taboo in most circles. Very well written article – it really cuts through the stereotypes. Recommend

  • Sabita
    Sep 13, 2010 - 8:28PM

    I don’t understand what the related stories have to with thisRecommend

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