Transgender people in Pakistan are known as "khawajasiras", “khusra” or "hijras" — terms denoting transgender women and cross-dressers.. Largely shunned by society, transgender people have traditionally made their living presiding over rituals such as blessing newborns or providing entertainment by dancing at weddings and parties, In Pakistan, it is considered un-Islamic for women to dance in front of men. [Source: Sajjad Tarakzai, AFP, May 21, 2020]

Studies by non-profit groups and development organizations estimate there are hundreds of thousands of hijra in Pakistan. By one count there are around 300,000 of them. Many of those who don’t earn money from begging or doing sex work. The Islamic month of Ramadan, when people like to party after the fasting ends, has traditionally been a time when the hijra earned money while people were celebrating and feasting.

Hijra is an Urdu-Hindu word that translates literally as hermaphrodite or impotent, although most of the one in Pakistan are thought to be transvestite homosexuals. “Khawaja siras” is an umbrella term dating back to the Mughal era and denoting a third sex that includes cross-dressers, eunuchs and intersex people, as well as transgender women and men. Because they are often disowned by their own family, hijras create a “shadow family” with someone who assumes the role of the fathers, mothers and brothers. “It is all fake, but they prefer it,” Saleem Awan, secretary of the Social Welfare Department in Quetta, said. “They prefer to live with their own kind.” [Source: Michele Langevine Leiby, Washington Post, February 10, 2012]

Anthony Lloyd wrote in The Times: Hijras have remained on the bottom rungs of Pakistani society. Although some families do accept a transgender child, hijras usually gain their status as a social group after having run away from abusive homes to live with other hijras.” “I was living in Karachi but my parents and brothers beat me,” a hijra in Peshawar told The Times. “Another hijra advised me to run to a faraway place, so I came here 13 years ago.” [Source: Anthony Lloyd, Peshawar, The Times, March 6 2010]

“Most choose to get tuition from a guru, an elder hijra who teaches them how to dress, talk, move and dance as a woman. A few undergo surgery, sometimes at the hands of gurus operating without anaesthetic. Most content themselves with lotions, hair removal and hormone tablets.Though prostitution is one potential professional avenue for hijras, most pride themselves as dancers and are asked to perform at weddings and circumcision ceremonies, as well as parties to celebrate the birth of a male child.

Estimates of the number of transgender in Pakistan vary widely. Provisional results from Pakistan’s census released in August 2017 showed that at least 10,418 people identified themselves as transgender. According to a government health ministry estimate made in 2015, that number is closer to at least 150,000. Advocacy group Trans Action says there are at least half a million. [Source: Al Jazeera, August 30, 2017]

History of Hijra in Pakistan

Many claim the hijra are the cultural heirs of eunuchs who thrived at the courts of the Mughal emperors that ruled the Indian subcontinent from 16th to the 19th century, when the British took over and marginalised them using Criminal Tribes Act, which endured after Pakistan independence in 1947 and wasn’t denotified until 1952.

Michele Langevine Leiby wrote in the Washington Post: “Eunuchs date back centuries — in the Mughal Empire, castrated men worked as harem guards and were highly esteemed as entertainers in the royal courts...Traditionally, eunuchs here were seen as blessed, displaying characteristics of both sexes and often invited to weddings to bring good luck to newlyweds. But esteem gave way to social opprobrium and harassment with the rise of religious fundamentalism. [Source: Michele Langevine Leiby, Washington Post, February 10, 2012]

Max Bearak wrote in the Washington Post: “Transgender communities have long been a visible, and integral, element of South Asian cultures. While most live marginalized lives and can be often seen begging at stoplights or on public transportation, they were once often welcomed in the courts of pre-colonial rulers as entertainers. Some believe that transgender people are agents of fertility, which is why they are still commonly paid in return for blessings at births and weddings.” [Source: Max Bearak, Washington Post, May 25, 2016]

The transgender population has been tolerated in Pakistan because the group is “a minority that doesn’t threaten anyone,” said Nadeem F. Paracha, a popular cultural critic and columnist for Pakistan’s Dawn Newspaper told the New York Times: “For centuries, from the time of the Mughal empire, they have been perceived as having been born with physical or sexual ambiguities, and so they are considered special,” Paracha said. “They have this status as God’s chosen people, and that is where the acceptability stems from: that God made them this way, and so the rest of us have to accept them. And in fact, in the South Asian imagination, there is this idea that they have powers to bless and curse people, which is why you see people from this community at wedding ceremonies or when children are born.” [Source: Mehreen Zahra-Malik, New York Times August 19, 2017]

He added: “That it’s O.K. to be transgender is something that is deeply ingrained in the cultural imagination of South Asian people. So even conservative people who might disapprove of their lifestyle or their way of dressing just stay silent or look the other way when it comes to things like laws to protect them. They’ve always just been a part of society.”

Life of Hijra in Rawalpindi

Most hijras describe themselves as "professional wedding dancers". Declan Walsh wrote in The Guardian: “Down a grimy alleyway in Rawalpindi, in the heart of Pakistan's military establishment, a striking figure tweaked her makeup and squirted a dash of perfume under her arms.” 21-year-old Alisha, “who worked as a makeup artist to pay for silicon implants, sported a 36B bra under a red sequinned dress. "I've always felt like a girl in my soul," she said. But her voice also rang with sadness: her middle-class Islamabad family cast her out. She pointed to Azeem, a middle-aged hijra who once worked as head of -housekeeping in a five-star hotel. “Now she is my mother and father," Alisha said. [Source: Declan Walsh, The Guardian, January 29, 2010]

“Although often referred to as "eunuchs", many of Pakistan's hijras have not undergone gender reassignment surgery, according to campaigners. The medical and psychological services available in other Asian countries, such as Thailand, are either absent or operate in the shadows. A plastic surgeon in Rawalpindi, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he would only operate on hijras after hours. “It would not raise the prestige of the clinic if they were seen," he said. The surgeon said he also treated a minority of women seeking gender -reassignment surgery. “They come in with bandages on their breasts, which causes ulcers and lesions, threatening to commit -suicide if we don't operate," he said.

At a party in Rawalpindi featuring hijra, “a group of men wearing regular shalwar kameez, loose trousers and tunic, watched from the back of the room. They were the "sponsors" — often married men who keep hijras as mistresses. The men watched silently, filming with their mobile phones, but sometimes stepped forward to cast bundles of 10 rupee notes over their favourite dancers — and in so doing, sent banknote images of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founding father, fluttering to the ground.

Life of Hijra in Lahore

Mehreen Zahra-Malik wrote in the New York Times: “Nadeem Kashish, 35, a transgender woman who is the leader of Pakistan’s She-Male Association for Fundamental Rights, said she had endured ridicule and violence as an effeminate child and the humiliation of performing as an oddity in a circus as a teenager. As a young adult, she tried to live her life as a man, and had a son with a woman who died in childbirth, before finally making peace with herself as a transgender woman. Ms. Kashish lived for years in a community of “khawaja siras.” [Source: Mehreen Zahra-Malik, New York Times August 19, 2017]

“Shunned by their families and subjected to systemic violence and discrimination in society, khawaja siras in Pakistan, and across most of South Asia, have for decades lived in these adoptive families, led by a mother figure, or guru, who provides shelter and protection in exchange for a percentage of the income earned by her followers, called chehlas, mainly from sex work, dancing or begging.

“Now working as a makeup artist at a major television news network, Ms. Kashish also runs a small shelter out of her home in Islamabad for transgender people who have been shunned by their families but do not want to be part of the khawaja sira culture, which many see as exploitative of young transgender people with no place else to turn. Ms. Kashish said that her own guru took advantage of her financially and that she now views these segregated communities as “the biggest curse” on the lives of Pakistan’s transgender people.”

Hijra in the Manly Frontier Town of Peshawar

Anthony Lloyd wrote in The Times: Peshawar is “a man’s world and no place at all for boys who want to be girls. Most of the time. “I’m a Pashtun and though Pashtuns are strict with us they give love to us, too. That’s why I’m here,” said Khushboo, or Fragrance, a transsexual who lives in the city’s old quarter. “When I dance at parties I meet plenty of good guys whom I give my number for introductions to other dances,” Khushboo, 28, added. “Though there are still badmashes [scoundrels] and drunks who try to kiss and bite me while I’m dancing, so that I must throw my chador at their feet and say, ‘Please, God, just let me go’.” [Source: Anthony Lloyd, Peshawar, The Times, March 6 2010]

“Khushboo is one of Peshawar’s estimated 4,000 hijras, Khushboo has high praise for Iftikhar Chaudhry, the Pakistani Chief Justice, after the Supreme Court issued a series of judgments recently in favour of the hijra community, which struggles to overcome prejudice that is reflected in a lack of legal, political and human rights..., Peshawar’s conservatism and traditionalist Pashtun values make life tough. “In the Punjab it is much better for us than here,” said Noor, 30, as she waited with seven others in a slum quarter to take dance bookings. “We are respected there and allowed to sit in the ladies’ section of the bus. But here in Peshawar if you want to curse someone then you’d wish upon them a child like us.”

“Khushboo usually performs with one other dancer and goes to parties with her cashier, DJ and bodyguard. The booking fee averages 2,000 rupees (£16) and she hopes to make another 4,000 rupees from cash thrown at her while she performs.” The hijras “greatest fear is not militants — whose bombings cause many events at which they would earn money to be cancelled — or beatings, but old age. Many hope that a new wave of reforms will allow them financial benefits which will prevent them having to beg when they are too old to work.For the time being, when the night’s dancing in Peshawar is done, Khushboo dons a black burqa to walk home, preferring to cover her face in the most conservative style of all.”

Violence, Discrimination and Abuse Directed at Transgender in Pakistan

Transgender people in Pakistan are largely shunned by society, face discrimination and have been the victims of beatings and rapes. Many endure self-isolation. “We have been quarantined for our entire life, we cannot go outside and we hide our faces whenever we leave our homes," one hijra told AFP. [Source: Sajjad Tarakzai, AFP, May 21, 2020]

Anthony Lloyd wrote in The Times: “The police and male college students were among the Peshawar hijras’ greatest fears. Noor said that she had been beaten numerous times by both. “I don’t want anything from the Supreme Court except for it to keep the police and college boys away. They come in here, throw us on the floor, take our make-up kits, chuck our things around and beat us if we don’t dance for them.” As if on cue, two leering policemen stuck their heads through the door. [Source: Anthony Lloyd, Peshawar, The Times, March 6 2010]

Mehreen Zahra-Malik wrote in the New York Times: Farzana Jan, the head of the Trans Action Alliance and the recipient of Pakistan’s first transgender passport, “comes from the northwestern town of Mardan and identifies as intersex. As a young girl, she found some happiness at home when her mother allowed her to wear dresses and nail polish, she said. But at school, her teachers forced her to dance in the center of the classroom while the other children clapped and made fun of her. “From the moment I was born, I was a showpiece,” she said in a telephone interview from Peshawar. “It made me very sad.” When she was 10, Ms. Jan ran away from Mardan and joined Peshawar’s khawaja sira community, beginning a long career as a dancer. “I have been groped and raped at parties,” she said. “Men have pulled guns on me and made me do unimaginable things. That’s been my life, but thank God, I don’t have to do that anymore.” [Source: Mehreen Zahra-Malik, New York Times August 19, 2017]

In October 2016, Ms. Jameel, the anthropologist, barely escaped being raped by a police officer who had driven her into the woods in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, on the pretext of giving her a ride home on his motorcycle. “I jumped off the bike and started running while he came after me swearing and screaming that he would shoot me,” Jameel recalled. “But as traumatizing as that experience might seem, it’s a very common thing in our lives — that even a policeman thinks we are fair game.”

Married Pakistan Hijra and Partner Jailed

In 2007, the BBC reported: “A Pakistani court has jailed a married couple for three years for perjury after a dispute over the husband's sex. A court ruled that the husband was, in fact, a woman, despite sex-change surgery and that the couple had lied about his sexual status. It also said their marriage was un-Islamic because it was same-sex. The case is believed the first of its kind in Pakistan. The couple said they would appeal against the sentence and have asked President Musharraf to help. [Source: BBC, 28 May 2007]

“Shumail Raj, 31, had sex-change surgery to become a man and then married his cousin — who was aware of the condition but says she needed his help to avoid being forced into wedlock with someone else. He is reported to have undergone surgery twice in Pakistan over the past 16 years to become a man. But tests carried out by doctors on behalf of the court ruled that Raj, who has a beard an moustache, was still a woman. He himself says that he needs to go abroad for more treatment even though his breasts and uterus have been removed.

“The judge, Khawaja Mohammad Sharif, said he was issuing a "lenient" sentence, below the maximum punishment, because the couple had apologised, the Associated Press news agency reports. He also asked them to pay a fine of 10,000 Pakistani rupees (US$165). Reports said Mr Raj and his 24-year-old wife Shahzina Tariq appeared shocked by the verdict. Earlier, the couple told the court that they had got married so that the wife could avoid an arranged marriage.

“The bride's father wants to annul the wedding on the grounds that it is against Islam for two women to marry. But the couple argue that they married to protect the bride from being sold into marriage to pay off her uncle's gambling debts. Shahzina Tariq says they are not homosexuals and they married because they are in love. The two were arrested a fortnight ago after the bride's family complained about the gender of her husband.”

Pakistani Transgender Activist Dies after Being Shot Six Times and Then Being Denied Treatment

Mehreen Zahra-Malik wrote in the New York Times: In 2016, “in an episode that received national attention, a young transgender activist who used the name Alisha died after being shot six times and then being denied treatment at a hospital in the northwestern city of Peshawar. Farzana Jan, a friend of Alisha’s, said she had stood outside the emergency room at a 1,750-bed hospital while doctors debated for hours whether Alisha should be treated in the male or female wards (See Below). Many asked whether Alisha’s blood was H.I.V. positive. [Source: Mehreen Zahra-Malik, New York Times August 19, 2017]

Max Bearak wrote in the Washington Post: “When a 23-year-old transgender activist was shot six times by a gang on Sunday night in northern Pakistan, other members of her community rushed her to a hospital... For an hour, while Alesha bled, doctors couldn't decide whether to admit her to the men's or women's ward, according to Trans Action. When they finally decided on the men's ward, Trans Action protested, and had her shifted to the women's ward, where other women apparently complained. Then the taunts began, Trans Action said. One doctor allegedly asked a Trans Action volunteer for her telephone number and how much she charges for a dancing party. Another was reportedly asked if her breasts were real. Another asked if the women from Trans Action just danced or also "perform sex," according to the group. [Source: Max Bearak, Washington Post, May 25, 2016]

“Local media outlets began reporting about the scene, and the governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where the city of Peshawar in which the attack took place is located, arrived at the hospital. Alesha was eventually transferred to a VIP ward for treatment, at least six hours after she arrived at Lady Reading Hospital, Trans Action said in a Facebook post. She succumbed to her injuries Wednesday morning....Trans Action said the gang that shot Alesha specifically targets members of the transgender community, and sometimes sexually assaults them while recording the crime.”

Transgender Person Killed by Drunks in Karachi

In August 2017, say armed men opened fire on a group of transgender people, killing one, in an affluent neighborhood of Karachi. Al Jazeera reported: “Aurangzeb Khattak, a police officer, said passengers in a 4WD vehicle first harassed the group by throwing rotten eggs at them and then opened fire, resulting in the death of Chanda Sharmeeli. “We are investigating the murder of victim, and from what we can understand so far, is that this was a personal argument gone too far,” he told Al Jazeera. “It doesn’t seem like there was a history of animosity.” [Source: Al Jazeera, August 30, 2017]

Kami Sid, the country’s first transgender model and a fellow of Sharmeeli, told Al Jazeera that the men in the car were “drunk” and forced the murdered person to sit in the car with them. “And as anyone who is being forced to do something, she [Sharmeeli] retaliated and was shot for it,” she said, adding that most likely the assailants were from “important families”. “It’s time a lesson is learnt, people from big families can’t just get away with everything. This society may have found tolerance, but there is no acceptance for the transgender.”

“Transgender people are often treated as sex objects and often become the victims of violent assault. Many transgenders can’t even file police reports because they don’t have identification, and when they go to police stations they are teased ridiculed.”

Transgender Rights in Pakistan

Pakistan became one of the first countries in the world to legally recognise a third sex in 2009 and began issuing transgender ID cards from 2017. Many hijra have registered themselves for ID cards as a “third sex” which gives them more rights in the areas of employment, inheritance and voter status. Several hijra have run for political office. [Source: Sajjad Tarakzai, AFP, May 21, 2020]

Mehreen Zahra-Malik wrote in the New York Times: “In 2016, a group of Pakistani clerics issued a religious edict saying that transgender people with “visible signs” of male or female attributes could marry someone of the opposite sex. In 2012, the Supreme Court declared equal rights for transgender citizens, including the right to inherit property and equal opportunity in education and employment, and the year before, they were given the right to vote.” In 2017 “Pakistan counted transgender people in its national census for the first time and the government issued its first passports with a transgender category — a milestone in the struggle against discrimination. [Source: Mehreen Zahra-Malik, New York Times August 19, 2017]

Also in 2017 Pakistan’s Parliament passed “the nation’s first law recognizing transgender people as equal citizens and laying out penalties for discrimination and violence against them. The Transgender Persons Protection of Rights bill, which community members and activists say has the support of all the major political parties, passed easily in Parliament in the coming weeks. “We are overwhelmed by how supportive the state has been to this law — we have so much hope,” said Mehlab Jameel, 25, an anthropologist who identifies as a transgender person of feminine expression and helped draft the bill.

“The law gives intersex people, eunuchs, transgender men and women and anyone whose gender identity or expression “differs from the social norms and cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at the time of their birth” the right to identify as a transgender person and enjoy the same rights as other men and women in Pakistan. Naeema Kishwar Khan, a member of Parliament who sponsored the bill and a member of one of Pakistan’s largest religious parties, the Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam, said: “We are pushing for this bill because it is the right of these people, not only a right as human beings but as citizens of this country.” There is overwhelming support from other major political parties. No one has opposed it.”

A Pakistani Supreme Court ruling in February 2012 issued orders, according to the Washington Post, to the government that transgender persons must be treated as other citizens are — although, if qualified, they will be given preference for civil service jobs for affirmative-action reasons. A transgender applicant with a 10th-grade education is deemed to have the same qualifications for government work as a non-transgender person with a bachelor’s degree, according to one attorney working on the case. Some transgender Pakistanis who have been abandoned by their family of origin are reluctant to acquire ID cards — even though they have the right to do so — because they do not wish to register under their father’s name as required under the rules. They would rather register under the name of their “guru,” the head of their chosen family. [Source: Michele Langevine Leiby, Washington Post, February 10, 2012]

Almas Bobby, 40 in 2012, a leader of the transgender community Rawalpindi and the first to receive an ID card with the “third sex” designation told the Washington Post: “Police used to beat us and take money from us. It was painful for us. Now we go to the police station, and they respect us and they are afraid of us. They take our cases first. Now they feel we have rights.”

Young Transgender Activists in Pakistan

Mehreen Zahra-Malik wrote in the New York Times: “To many transgender Pakistanis, the advances still fall short of what is really needed: changing the attitudes of a mainstream society that shuns and abuses them, often forcing them into begging or prostitution to earn a living. While a majority of transgender people in the country still identify as khawaja siras, many young transgender men and women, emboldened by new rights and a connection to a global identity, are rejecting the culture, saying it exploits disoriented young people instead of providing the promised safety net. [Source: Mehreen Zahra-Malik, New York Times August 19, 2017]

“Qasim Iqbal, the executive director of trans-rights group Naz Pakistan, said, “While the guru system has its benefits and definitely provides protection, some young educated people — especially those with access to social media, who are working closely with rights groups and are more aware of their own rights — they are starting to identify less with the khawaja sira culture and more with a global trans-identity.”

“Perhaps no one better represents the deepening schism between the traditional khawaja sira culture and a new wave of those with transgender identity than Kami Sid, 27, who rose to fame last year after a fashion shoot as Pakistan’s first transgender model. A third gender or sex means you are on the sidelines, you are something extra,” said Ms. Sid, who began transitioning to becoming a woman about five years ago. “I am a woman. I want to be part of the mainstream. I reject any culture that says I am a third something.”

Transgender Candidates Run for Office

Reporting from Karachi in May, 2017, Insiya Syed of Reuters wrote: “Even among the colorful cast of mullahs, laborers and idealists standing in Pakistan’s elections. Bindia Rana stands out. She and a handful of others are the first of Pakistan’s transgender “hijra” community to register as candidates. Dressed in a long, checked outfit with black lace sleeves, her red hair piled on top of her head, she resembles the hoopoe, the flamboyant and industrious bird crowned with a shock of red feathers that she chose as a campaign symbol. “Transgender people get our first threats from our own family,” Rana told Reuters during an interview. She is a candidate for the Sindh provincial assembly from one of the city’s constituencies. “I always tell the transgenders to endure the things that their family says to them,” she said. “It’s more difficult to tolerate nasty things said by the world.” [Source: Insiya Syed, Reuters, May 9, 2013]

“The Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that hijras could get national identity cards as a “third sex,” neither man nor woman. Now that they have legal standing, at least four members of the community are standing for elections. Rana, 45, wants to change some of “ injustices directed at hijras. “After years of working as a dancing girl, she became a social worker dedicated to protecting her community. Rana’s lowest point came five years ago, when she and friends held a public collection to help a colleague with cancer. They stood all day in the heat, but she only got US$1 from a small girl who came forward and asked what they were doing. After listening, she solemnly handed over a note.“I can’t forget that girl and one day, somehow, I will repay that gesture,” she said.

“Rana is unlikely to win in the poll. Besides the difficult position of hijras in Pakistani society, her lack of funds makes campaigning impossible. She is standing against some of the biggest parties in the country — her opponents include a former minister for the Muttahida Quami Movement, which has a stranglehold on city politics. “Due to the power of the larger and stronger parties, we are asking for trouble,” she said. “They will not cooperate with us.”

Rana herself is not confident of victory. She’s too poor to print many posters to raise her profile, although there is one proudly displayed above the thin mattress on the floor in her bedroom. Threats have kept her from holding meetings — the more she campaigns, the more hate-filled phone calls she gets. She doesn’t know who is threatening her, and sees no point in calling police — everyone who is campaigning is getting threats. In Karachi, the city she calls home, a traditional way of campaigning is to show up at the scene of a bombing and offer financial help. “I don’t even have enough (to buy) tissues to hand to the victims so they could wipe away their tears,” Rana said.

“Instead, she has the support of family and friends she has made during her career. Her family, after initially criticizing her life as a hijra, has come to accept it. Her sister has promised to bring her friends to the polling station to vote for her. And even if she’s not elected, in a way she’s already won just by standing. She had to lodge a case in the Supreme Court to get her nomination papers accepted after doubts over her gender. The ruling in her favor opened the way for future candidates. “That really was the best day of my life!” she said happily, as the afternoon sun flooded in through the single small window in her apartment.“I got respect from my community and all the people I know. Now I feel that I even if I die, my name will live on.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (tourism.gov.pk), Official Gateway to the Government of Pakistan (pakistan.gov.pk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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