Meeno Baji’s Story Breaks Our Heart
We share the inextinguishable light of one non-binary trans Pakistani’s life after her killing in Saudi Arabia.
On February 26 of this year, a group of transgender Pakistanis and Saudi Arabians gathered for a private birthday party in Riyadh, the cosmopolitan capital of Saudi Arabia. The Pakistanis lived in the country on work VISAs. At the party, they donned clothes, jewelry, and makeup that comported with their innermost gender identities and expressions.
One 60-year-old trans woman reveler at the party was named Meeno Baji. This is a story about a light of trans community that can never be extinguished despite harsh oppression. This is Meeno’s story.
Saudi police raided the party where Meeno and her friends gathered. Meeno and 34 of her colleagues were taken to Azizia prison, as the BBC reports. Meeno was beaten with “clubs and hosepipes” until, as her trans activist friends say, Meeno died of heart complications as a result of the beating.
“Baji” means elder sister in both Hindi and Urdu, and Meeno was lovingly welcomed amongst her peers at the party as a sage, enduring presence. The birthday girl and another attendant were going to adopt Meeno as their trans mother in a festive ritual at the party before the police raided the gathering. We know of Meeno now because her friends have risen up to share her story.
The partiers gathered to express themselves privately at great risk. In Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, many trans people face violence, imprisonment, harassment, and murder just for being who they are.
After a Pakistani trans woman named Alisha was shot to death last year, a group of clerics issued a fatwa decreeing that trans people can inherit wealth and get married to someone of the opposite gender. The fatwa further decreed that trans folk should not be humiliated or insulted. But, the fatwa is not legally binding and, as Human Rights Watch reported, violence towards trans women in Pakistan surged last year.
In their fatwa, the clerics stressed that trans people must strictly adhere to binary identity and expression—meaning, the clerics demanded adherence to rigid notions of male and female roles ad they forbade gender ambiguity. The clerics stipulated that trans marriages may only occur under Islamic law if the trans persons “do not have visible signs of both genders.”
While Saudi Arabia has no formal laws pertaining to trans folks, they face fierce violence and subjugation in the Sunni Islamic kingdom typified by intense police surveillance and frequent imprisonment and torture at the hands of law enforcement.
The BBC article about Meeno’s killing mentions that “cross-dressing” is not “tolerated” in Saudi Arabia. Yet, it is important to note that wearing clothes normatively attributed to a gender assumed to be not one’s own is frowned upon in most countries all over the world, including the United States, despite changing attitudes towards transgender people.
In fact, narratives of binary, transitioned transgender people like the famed sports star Caitlyn Jenner dominate mainstream American and European news far more than stories of non-binary trans folks like Meeno who cannot or do not wish to undergo procedures to “fully” medically transition.
Recognizing these different narratives is important because Meeno’s trans identity does not fit into the now-familiar binary mode that is increasingly digestible in the mainstream media. For all intents and purposes, Meeno could only express her trans identity privately, and she did so in shifting, hard-to-pinpoint ways.
Such distinctions are even evident in how Meeno is addressed in the widely shared BBC article that brought her story to the forefront: Meeno is identified by masculine pronouns and by both her adopted name and her given name (which we decline to state because of the need to avoid deadnaming, which works against the cause of trans liberation).
It remains a revolutionary act to identify Meeno as she and by the name that she adopted amongst her trans friends even though we are not privy to her wishes after her untimely death. These questions of identification are significant parts of Meeno’s story—and that of all gender-variant people—and we realize how controversial decisions of identification always will be. (If we receive information pointing to the need to change our identification we will update this story).
Meeno was a gifted tailor and seamstress born in Barikot town in Swat within Pakistan. As an adolescent, Meeno learned to sew and design for women and maintained a shop in Barikot. It is likely that her profession gave Meeno access to her trans expression even though the strictures of society forbade public confirmation.
Meeno was married to a cisgender woman and together they raised a family. She went to work as a tailor for women in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. Meeno was frequently reprimanded by her Pakistani family for associating with transgender women in Saudi Arabia, according to the BBC.
Meeno’s son, Sar Zameen, speaks glowingly of Meeno to the BBC, noting that she was a good parent who put her through an expensive private school in Saudi Arabia even when it was difficult to do so.
Meeno’s family members did not truly consider her to be trans like the other trans women in Saudi Arabia. But, the BBC reports that some of Meeno’s friends did indeed consider her to be trans and they told the BBC that she had even undergone facial surgery and other procedures to uplift her beauty.
Meeno seemed to live a life with many tributaries, fulfilling the demands of oppression while also letting the light of self-acceptance shine brightly into her world. In many respects, Meeno’s joys and struggles mirror those of many trans folks in the United States who struggle with continually competing societal obligations as they search for love, affirmation, beauty, and acceptance.
Today, on International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, we are thinking of Meeno and offering her friends and family deep blessings.