A small victory for Pakistan’s transgenders

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Wearing a red knit bonnet, matching lipstick and a shawl over her large shoulders and muscular forearms, Nanni gently sought to clear up some confusion as the call to prayer sounded from a nearby mosque.

“I’m a ‘she-male,’ ” said Nanni, a kind of den mother for a dozen or so fellow hijra, or transgender people, in a rundown neighborhood of Rawalpindi. “We all are.”

Sharing two small rooms halfway along a dark dirt alley and up a steep flight of steps, Nanni’s family is one made, not born: a community of outcasts forced together after their families abandoned them, their indeterminate sex unnerving this patriarchal society -- especially the ascendant Pakistani Taliban.

“We are God’s creatures,” Nanni said. “Even if many people don’t accept us, we feel the same here in the den as if we are of the same blood. We do everything to take care of one another.”

Dominating one room was a rough-hewn double bed that the dozen or so hijra, some more than 6 feet tall, use in shifts. The walls were covered with pictures of hijra beauties of the Mughal era that ended more than a century ago, a time when transgender people were not only accepted but also enjoyed significant power and prestige.

Asked whether the hijra family members were all congenital eunuchs and hermaphrodites, Nanni, 35, insisted that they were all born that way. To prove the point, she ordered Akri, a hermaphrodite whose broad face was softened by mascara and a scarf, to drop her traditional outfit and show her private parts.

Hijra have long been stigmatized and subject to discrimination and abuse in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, with its rigorously defined roles for men and women. But in a landmark decision in December, the Supreme Court ordered that they be protected from police harassment, be eligible for a separate gender category on ID cards and be recognized under inheritance laws.

“We need proper rights,” said Noor, a 21-year-old member of Nanni’s household. “No one listens to our concerns.”

Although nascent legal status is a first step, social acceptance is likely to take far longer. Noor and the others said police officers and residents often beat, harass, rob and sexually abuse them.

“You get used to it,” said Nanni, who as the guru, or head of the hijra family, is combination parent, boss and enforcer. “It only shows how stupid their mentality is.”

The hijra say they feel especially vulnerable when it comes to the Taliban, which decries singing, dancing and open displays of femininity. “We are most afraid of them,” Noor said. “We’re sparrows of paradise, and they don’t like us.”

The court decision to bolster transgender rights, however, has raised questions of what it means to be a hijra. The term refers to a born eunuch or hermaphrodite, a group seen as marginally acceptable because their birth was God’s will. But many others even less well-regarded in society -- homosexuals, transvestites, bisexuals and transsexuals -- also claim hijra status.

Some sociologists and legal experts have suggested that eligibility for new ID cards or other benefits might require a physical exam and test to see how claimants urinate.

Wary of being harassed or attacked, Noor initially shied away before agreeing to tell her story: How she was born a hermaphrodite and kicked out of the house at 11 as puberty dawned. How she hooked up with Nanni and the other hijra.

“They’re natural,” said Noor, without prompting, referring to her breasts.

In South Asia, hijra traditionally have made their living by dancing and singing for tips for weddings, the birth of sons and housewarmings, often walking a thin line between begging and extortion. They frequently show up uninvited and refuse to leave unless paid.

Many in this conservative society believe hijra have a direct line to God, a trade-off for their inability to procreate. So even as society has ostracized them, it’s also paid them amply, fearful of their curses, taunts and, in extreme cases, public display of genitalia at celebratory events.

Among their techniques, said Claire Pamment, theater department director at the National College of Arts Rawalpindi, is to praise and flatter the virility of the men in the wedding audience. But if the rupees don’t flow, their jibes take on an emasculatory tone.

Recent social changes in the region, including urbanization, have eroded their niche, however. Superstition is waning, competing entertainment is proliferating and more weddings are held in hotels that hijra can’t easily get into.

“No one invites us to entertain anymore,” Nanni said. “It’s difficult to make ends meet.”

That’s forced more hijra into sex work. Noor, initially reluctant to discuss it, eventually acknowledged that she’s a prostitute, “but only if I like the client.” She said she makes $3 to $5 per visit.

The golden era for hijrahijra was during the time of the Mughal monarchs, from 1526 to 1857, when eunuchs and hermaphrodites oversaw the harem, often becoming key advisors.

“Our forefathers served the Mughals in the palaces, and people wanted to learn from them because they were great people,” Nanni said, gesturing at a picture of a Mughal dancer. “God willing, we’ll one day recover our respect, with the help of the courts and the media.”

After 1870, however, British morality laws such as the Criminal Tribes Act and the Dramatic Performance Act restricted the activities of hijra and their inheritance and other rights, tarring them as “sodomites.”

“They had been well respected, but the British were unable to conceive of it,” said Humaira Jami, a psychology student at Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University who is writing her doctoral thesis on hijra.

The stigma attached to them since then has left them increasingly vulnerable to theft, attack and abuse in Pakistan’s male-dominated and often-feudal society.

“I do not like them,” said Parvez, 25, a laborer in Rawalpindi who gave only one name. “They pollute people’s morality.”

When hijra are attacked, police sometimes not only refuse to file reports, several hijra said, they’re often the tormentors, demanding bribes or worse.

Attorney Aslam Khaki, a longtime advocate who filed the Supreme Court challenge, said two hijra recently told him they were falsely arrested by police, then taken to a dorm for off-duty officers where they were sexually abused by a dozen of them. With few willing to stand up and protect them, the job often falls to the guru.

In a tony part of Rawalpindi, a housekeeper showed visitors into a high-ceilinged mansion owned by Almas “Bobby” Shah, 48, one of the city’s biggest gurus, who said about 100 hijra answered to her.

After a suitable time, she appeared, sporting four gold rings, a black embroidered traditional outfit, peach sequined slippers and flowing henna-dyed hair.

Shah said she started to make her mark two decades ago, by organizing 25 hijra to take on a police station that had refused to deal seriously with an attack on one of them. The next time it happened, she brought 150, then 400.

“I told them, this should be your job,” she said, crossing her legs. “You have to show strength.”

Since the Supreme Court decision, there have been fewer cases of police abuse, some said. “It’s been a huge change,” Noor said.

Other complex issues still need to be resolved, including inheritance, whether hijra merit special job or housing quotas and their gender status on ID cards. That’s important, Shah said, when you’re searched at the airport and your ID says male but you’re wearing a dress.

“In our whole lives, we’ve only faced difficulties,” said Nanni, who never went to school and whose parents sold her to a guru on discovering in her early teens that she was a eunuch. “We expect good things to come from the court decision. We want things to get better.”