Understanding the Transgender Community in Pakistan

Illustration by Erte

Pakistan’s Khawaja Sira community is one of the most oppressed and discriminated ones in the society. This discrimination begins from their families who banish them from their homes for being different and not fitting into the gender norms defined by societies. These homeless and banished individuals are then taken into shelter by the Guru-Chela system that exists in the Khawaja Sira community. Under this system, the transgender lot, referred to as “Hijras” answer to a head figure called a Guru and work as beggars, sex workers and wedding dancers to earn money. The Guru earns a set percentage of that earning as a commission in return for providing them with accommodation and association to their community.

This is what an average Pakistani knows about the transgender community living in its midst. But it is just the surface. Many of the things stated in the above paragraph are not even factual. In order to integrate the transgender community it is important to understand what it really means to be a transgender. Before answering that question we need to recognize the difference between the concepts of “sex” and “gender”.

Sex is a biological term, which refers to the categorization of people into two main categories (male and female) on the basis of their reproductive functions. Gender, on the other hand, is a social construct which determines the masculinity and femininity of a person based on their behavioural, psychological, cultural and social differences, as opposed to biological ones. It includes aspects such as the role definitions of men and women as established by societies and communities across the world, or the manifestations of different social relationships between men and women. The sex of a person can be identified right at birth, but the gender of people is either instilled in them or adopted by them as they grow up and construct their identities.

An intersex is a person who is born with an anatomy or a reproductive system that can neither be classified as a male or a female one. This is a biological abnormality that affects the determination of the “sex” of a person. This phenomenon is fairly rare. The reported incidence of this abnormality in South East Asia is one in 10,000 live births.[1] Transgenderism on the other hand is a phenomenon whereby someone is born with biologically normal male or female bodies, but psychologically identifies as a gender opposite to his/her sex. This means that a person born with a male body psychologically identifying himself as a women is a “transwoman” while a person born identifying with the male gender while biologically being a female is known as a “transman” The majority of the Khawaja Sira community is not comprised of intersex people (as is popularly assumed), but transgender ones.

Gender non-conformity begins at a young age. Children start to get exposed to society’s gender norms at a young age, usually as toddlers. Parents and families panic when confronted with the idea of children assuming identities that do not adhere to the strict definitions set by the society. In the case of gender, our society has tried very hard to draw blunt lines: pink is for girls, blue is for boys, dolls are for girls, cars are for boys, skirts are for girls, pants are for boys. Diversion from these norms is considered abnormal. Our culture has gone lengths to define femininity and masculinity, extending the divide between the two using ordinary concepts like colours and objects. Liking flowers and swayed walking is ominous for a boy. A girl is considered less “feminine” if she sits with her knees spaced apart. Anyone who escapes these neatly drawn circles of femininity and masculinity, even in the slightest, will be ripped apart by society and have their normality questioned and mocked. A girly boy will be made fun of for being “sissy” while a boyish girl will be classified as a “tomboy”. This mockery and heightened psychological abuse that a child goes through from a young age, can cause severe emotional distress. This distress can lead to gender dysphoria, where a transgender might feel the need to change his/her physical body. Hormone blockers and sex reassignment surgeries are sought, but in a country like Pakistan, where majority of the transgender community is poor, cheaper alternatives are sought which have resulted in botched surgeries, hormonal imbalance, diseases and death.

There is not enough research evidence to prove how or why a 3 year old boy may identify as a girl, and no external factor like parenting or childhood trauma has been proven to be a cause for gender nonconformity. For some children, this gender nonconformity is only a stage and passes but for others it continues and cements itself in the teenage years. People blaming transgender identities on parents’ encouragement or discouragement of a child’s behaviour is also wrong as there is no evidence that parenting is responsible for a child having a gender identity that is not in line with his or her biological sex. As such, there is no way to fix or suppress the gender identity of a person. A child who is persistently gender non-conforming will grow up to transition; it is not something that can he/she can be talked out of or beaten out of or repress. The transition process involves wearing the clothing for their identified gender and changing their name or pronoun. Later, in their teenage years, a transwoman/man may use medication or hormones to bring about changes that are consistent with their gender identity (like altering of the voice, or facial hair).

So when in Pakistan, a 5 year old boy plays with makeup, walks around in his mom’s dupatta, speaks softly and makes elaborate hand gestures, these behavioural patterns are admonished by parents, sometimes strictly. Many are taken to their local pirs, doctors and psychologists. When this behaviour continues and the boy starts to identify as a female and assumes that gender, the normal Pakistani household does not tolerate it and that is where the Khawaja Sira community comes in. Admonished, kicked out or escaping from abuse both within and outside of home, the transwomen or transmen find a safe haven in the Guru-Chela system. Many people insist on asking why the transgender community does not get educated or tilt towards empowering and better paying professions instead of begging, prostitution and dancing. The answer lies in the economic realities of Pakistan. This is a country where earning money to fulfil basic needs is hard for anyone, not just a transman/woman. This is a country where student retention in schools is low for the whole population and not just transwomen/men. But, for the transgender community, the struggle is amplified for several reasons. First of all, a homeless and poor transwoman/man will find shelter, food and acceptance only in the Khawaja Sira community. Once he/she enters the Khawaja Sira community, he has to fit into the Guru-Chela system. However, the only line of work offered to a transman/woman in the Guru-Chela community is prostitution, begging or dancing. Education is not encouraged in the Guru-Chela system because it empowers the transgender community and rids them of their dependence on the Guru and diminishes their power and influence. This systematic dependence is visible in feudal tribal system or bonded labour systems and is not unique to the Guru-Chela system only.

However, even if a transman or a transwoman does branch out of the Guru-Chela system, they are met with various hurdles. Apart from facing discrimination and bullying in schools, even if transmen/women get educated they face difficulties in finding a job, and enduring discrimination at workplaces once they do. Sexualisation of a transman/woman is rampant. From harassment in public places to gang rapes, humiliation and abuse is directed towards the transgender community across Pakistan. Cases of violence and abuse instil fear in the transgender community so much so that transwoman/man trying to make it on their own feel highly vulnerable. This is why, even if they want to escape the Guru-Chela system, they still prefer to stay in it because it means protection. Suicide rates are extremely high amongst transgender persons because of societal pressures.

The solution to breaking these patterns of discrimination and oppression starts with acceptance. The reason why the transgender community is side lined is because of the first rejection that starts from their homes. Fix your family systems, educate parents and families around you that abusing or admonishing their child because of being different is by no means justified both morally and religiously. A transman/woman who is not deprived of a loving family and a home will never feel the need to enter a Guru/Chela system. The next step is fixing the society, and that change comes from you. Do not demean a Khawaja Sira the next time you see them, do not call your friend a “khusra” as an insult, and refuse to believe in the stereotypes that sexualize trans-people. These are small attitudinal changes that collect to form collective social thinking. Educate yourselves about the realities and struggles of the transgender community; it is not a biological curse they carry, it is a conscious assumption of their identities that they are suffering the consequences for. Know that gender is not binary. Talk to transwomen/men, make conversation, invite them for lunch, and help them find jobs. This awareness will slowly translate to laws and policies that protect transgender communities and provide them education and employment opportunities. Laws will ensure that workplace discrimination or violence against a transgender person will not go unpunished and will pave way for safer public spaces for trans-people. Integration of the transgender community is not easy and it is surely not a quick process, but the change begins at home and the change begins with you.[2]

[1] Dawn,. “Trauma of Patients With Intersex Condition”. 2010. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.

[2] Dairah-The Support Group aims to hold sessions that bring together members of the transgender community and the wider society to bridge them together through constructive conversation. The conversations with the Transgender community are being held in collaboration with FDI-Forums for Dignity Initiatives ( www.fdipakistan.org). We thank the transgender activists representing their organization for all the support and information provided.

Follow the link to find an opportunity to connect with the transgender community: https://www.facebook.com/DairahSupportGroup/?fref=ts

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