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An unlearning of oppression

Retracing the history of khwaja siras in the Subcontinent demonstrates the slow and steady stifling of a community

By Sajeer Shaikh |
PUBLISHED August 14, 2022

Oppression is a relative term, that is, by its very definition, contextual in nature, and relative to an entity. In many cases, the creation of a subaltern is done through oppression in various forms. A global example is Islamophobia. While Muslim minorities face oppression at the hands of those that constitute the majority around the world, Muslims can also, in turn, be oppressors in spaces where they themselves constitute the majority.

Oppression can often stem from a rejection of, or clash in values. A fundamental disagreement or lack of cohesion and comprehension in two narratives can become a linchpin for oppression, as can disdain. Keeping this in mind, shedding light on the oppression of the khwaja sira community becomes pertinent, given the alarming rate at which their murders are being reported.

Before deep diving into the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial significance of the community itself, one must understand how setting up a norm, or “normal” often leads to oppression. Dr. Mehrub Moiz Awan, a public health worker in Karachi, who identifies as khwaja sira, in a conversation on gender identity on a podcast called The Pakistan Experience, beautifully highlights this concept. When one sets up a binary, or a sense of dictated normalcy, it leads to the othering of all that which does not conform to those rigid boundaries. A fear of the unknown, tied in with a lack of knowledge of “normal” culture, therefore others all that which does not conform, leading to a rise in hostility towards the same.

As far as gender identity is concerned, for the longest time, the conversation has been around two genders - the male gender, and the female gender. Modern day conversation around the same, too, stems from a Western understanding of gender and sexuality, which, in itself, does not fully highlight the struggle of the same, as far as the subcontinent is concerned. Therefore, in modern day conversations on media platforms, there is a misrepresentation of what being khwaja sira truly is.

Under the term, ‘LBTQIA+’ khwaja siras are lumped under the umbrella of being transgender. However, historically, and from within the indigenous community itself, there is a rejection of this Western term, simply because it is not appropriate and does not necessarily apply to the community. Modern discourse within the liberal community misunderstands what being khwaja sira is to a great extent, and conservatives, when observing the term being grouped with anything that does not conform to heteronormative standards, further demonize this as well.

Faris A. Khan, in his paper, ‘Translucent Citizenship: Khwaja Sira Activism and Alternatives to Dissent in Pakistan’ defines the khwaja sira community as “gender non-conforming” individuals. This is backed by Dr. Mehrub’s explanation of the same, in her own show titled ‘Stoned Alive.’ Dr. Mehrub paints being khwaja sira as a spiritual experience, where being male or female is of little significance, for it, in itself, is a gender identity in and of itself. Khan, in his paper, also describes being khwaja sira as “gender-ambiguous,” and this ambiguity, alongside a vehement post-colonial hangover, contributes to the demonization of this community.

Dr. Mehrub outlines the significance of the khwaja sira community during the Mughal era on The Pakistan Experience. She highlights how being khwaja sira was not demonized. In fact, khwaja siras were a part of the Mughal courts, and were also lauded as entertainers. Supporting this statement, Mahwish Gul’s article for Development and Cooperation, titled ‘History of a marginalised ­community,’ talks about how, during the Mughal era, the khwaja siras were widely respected, trusted, and could garner a large amount of wealth. They were often given custodial powers, and could rise through the ranks to become generals, teachers, and advisors.

However, when the British colonised the subcontinent, their staunch, conservative values (which were the norm for them), clashed with the Mughal way of life, which was, even then, far more progressive and diverse for the British to digest. Claiming vulgarity and obscenity, the British weaponised the core differences between what was their normal, and what existed in the Mughal empire, othering the khwaja sira community. Mahwish states in her article that the influence of khwaja siras truly began waning during the period of colonization, where, in 1871, the Criminal Tribes Act (CTC) was introduced. This was utilized as a means to control, round up, kidnap, castrate, and sodomize the khwaja sira community.

This law made being khwaja sira itself a punishable offence, where “men,” as they were perceived to be, could not don female clothing, or perform any semblance of femininity. Khwaja siras could no longer partake in any form of entertainment too. This came as a financial hit to the community, where the khwaja sira means of livelihood was criminalised as well.

The British, by all means, wanted to erase the very existence of khwaja siras, simply because they believed there were only two genders, and this community did not conform to their understanding of the same. Criminalisation of homosexuality was also introduced by the British, and these laws and shifts in mindset left a long-lasting, trickle-down impact, villainizing homosexuality and being khwaja sira.

In a post-colonial setting, it was not until 2009 that Pakistan’s Supreme Court formally recognized the rights of khwaja siras. In fact, according to Dr. Mehrub, Pakistan has one of the most progressive legal frameworks for the khwaja sira community, albeit its implementation is still questionable. That being said, the mindset left behind by the British, alongside their understanding of what is acceptable and what is not, even in terms of gender identity, is still prevalent, with little to no understanding of what being khwaja sira truly is.

According to statistics presented in Jovaria Ghani’s investigative paper titled, ‘Peace building in Pakistan: Khwaja Sira Activism,’ Pakistan houses over 1.5 million khwaja siras. Even today, despite legal recognition, khwaja siras are victims of violence, sexual abuse, and targeted killings. Moreover, their lack of access to education, alongside high HIV positivity rates, makes their existence and integration in society a Herculean task.

Given their struggle, the demonisation is further added to when they are lumped under the very Western understanding of LGBTQIA+ rights. Dr. Mehrub critiques this understanding of queer culture as being derivative of, and therefore applicable to, Western society. Their values and history of anything that deviates from heterosexuality and religion differ from ours, and therefore, the course of liberation must be different for these communities as well. She corrects audiences who believe that being transgender and being khwaja sira are the same, pointing out how, in fact, there is a core difference between the two. Where khwaja sirahiat is a gender in and of itself, being transgender, by definition, suggests a change from one’s assigned gender at birth.

Keeping all this in mind, it must be highlighted that while the khwaja sira community is oppressed, presented in a negative light, and their very identity misrepresented in the media in Pakistan, the community, that prefers to remain on the outskirts of culture, is steadfast from within. By no means has the community been eradicated. However, their oppression, due to the norms set up by heteronormativity that borrow from colonial values, is a stark reality.

That being said, figures like Julie and Dr. Mehrub, collaborating with media platforms like The Centrum Media, and Almas Bobby, who have been spearheading the civil movement for khwaja siras, are leading the fight against this very oppression. Moreover, figures like Jannat Ali, who are vocal advocates of queer culture, are utilising social media platforms to champion queer voices, despite all odds.

The demonisation of the community has to be unlearned, simply because, due to its very nature, it goes against the grain of culture that existed for the predominantly Muslim world during the Mughal era. Shedding colonial values in this post-colonial environment is extremely important, and it ties back to affirming what our own identity was, before it was polluted with ideals that our self-proclaimed white masters left behind for us to follow.