Democracy slowly spreads to the margins of Pakistani society

Screen shot of The Guardian's audio sildeshow on hijras by Declan Walsh

[The image above is from: New life beckons for the hijra, Pakistan’s transgender community – The Guardian]

In the state where religious extremism has been endorsed by the state and the military establishment since 1947, and where extremism has been on a consistent sharp rise over the past decade, transgendered people have always been more readily accepted than homosexuals. Although, transgendered people – known in local language as hijra, khawa sira or khusra (catch all terms used for referring to transgenders, transvestites and eunuchs) – have been denied identity and citizenship since the formation of Pakistan, they have been allowed to exist visibly in the margins of the Pakistani society.

In the past sixty years, khawaja siras in Pakistan have faced discrimination and abuse. They have been denied basic human rights, education, health care and respectable job opportunities. “Their story is, or one could easily say ‘was,’ painful until the summer of 2009,” writes Rabail Baig in a recent Foreign Policy article highlighting the recent Supreme Court decisions allowing khawaja siras to register themselves as transgendered on national identity cards and to vote in general elections like other Pakistani citizens. However, the reality of their lives is much harsher than the denial of identity and citizenship by the state.

Rarely accepted by their families, khawaja siras live in their own communities where they create their own families. The “guru” or the master is usually an older, more experienced and influential member of the community who acts as the guardian and sometimes as a mother for her disciples. Not only are they cast out, they are often beaten and humiliated by their families and other people including law officers. Since they are not accepted by the society and often lack education, they rely on dancing, begging and prostitution as the main sources of income.

Following the 2009 Supreme Court ruling to register hijras, the state also offered them a number of government jobs. In order to embarrass people who failed to pay their taxes, khawaja sira were hired as door to door tax collectors who reportedly collected $100,000 of unpaid taxes within nine months of the program. Hiring khawaja siras for their “persuasive skills” and the public embarrassment they may cause the individuals evading taxes highlights the the social stigma that is very deeply connected with the third gender in Pakistan, and offering job positions that exploit this stigma fails to accord any respect to the members of transgender community.

While recognition of their citizenship and reduction in police violence and abuse is an overall positive outcome, the number of individuals claiming their newfound rights to register for national identity card and general election voting lists remain very low among the transgender community whose numbers are thought to be somewhere between 80,000 and 300,000. Among the many reasons for disappointingly low registration is the fact that many khawaja sira who have been ostracized by their families would like to put the name of their guru as their legal guardian, which is not yet possible under the current legal system as the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) asks for documents of biological parents at the time of registration.

A recent documentary following the lives of a few khawaja siras in Pakistan, Chan di Chummi (Kiss the Moon, 2009), expressed the difficulties this community faces on a more basic level in their day to day lives. Watching the individuals featured in the documentary, I realized that not only are the transgender marginalized by the social and legal systems, they seem to have internalized the oppression of the society. One of the khawaja sira, Aini seemed unable to express her own identity and she cannot reconcile her biological and psychological condition with the demands of the social and religious setup around her. They feel that the “right” thing to do is to repress their identity and emotions as according to Islam the life of a transgender person is sinful. Another khawja sira, Sonya points out that most of them don’t have any legal documents or identity cards since they don’t require one as a distinct “clap” (a mark of a South Asian hijra) serves as their ID card. Thus, the khawaja siras have been denied identity in the social as well as the legal system of South Asia.

During the film, a 110 year old khawja sira, Boota, explains that people in South Asia used to treat transgendered people with more respect in older times. In older times, people would listen to their music and appreciate their skill, but now their trade has been cheapened. The film shows how this community struggles with the most simple things like having normal relationships and family lives, and these issues may matter far more to them than being able to vote . One of the individuals comments on the double standards their biological families uphold, the families are not embarrassed when the khawja siras do chores typically associated with women at home, but the family members are appalled by the idea of their sons and daughters openly living a transgender life.

Traditionally, the media has always represented exaggerated stereotypical images of khawaj sira on the television, however a recent news report showed the funeral of a transgender person for the first time in Pakistan’s media history. The reporter explains that in the South Asian culture, there are a number of myth’s surrounding the burial services of khawaja siras, many people believe that the khajwa sira take their dead to the graveyard at night and bury them standing straight up. The report throws light on an important aspect of transgender life that most South Asians fail to even consider: transgender people are normal human beings like everyone else and follow the same religions, rituals and beliefs as the rest of the society around them.

Changes in the legal system are important for helping the transgender persons their rights, but those rights will continue to be denied by the people around them unless they are integrated into the social fabric of Pakistani culture. As long as khawaja siras are pushed to the margins of the society and treated as an alien race, the abuse and humiliation they suffer on a daily basis cannot be mitigated by changing a few laws.

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