The word Hijra has, ironically, become a curse in Pakistan which clearly shows the cruelty and obliviousness of a society. Moreover, transgenders are often cast away by their families in Pakistan and many were forced to become either beggars or sex workers owing to lack of acceptance and social status. Part of the transgender or Hijra community, social stigma, and discrimination make them outcasts in Pakistan’s highly conservative society. Today hijras, who include transgender and intersex people, are hard to miss. Dressed in glittering outfits, their faces heavily coated in cheap makeup, they sashay through crowded intersections knocking on car windows with the edge of a coin and offering blessings.
They crash fancy weddings and birth ceremonies, singing bawdy songs and leaving with fistfuls of rupees. Many Hijras feel a sense of alienation, of being looked at as freaks. They complain about being heckled, harassed, and assaulted. Gurus help the young Hijras navigate some of this; their networks of disciples are known as “houses” or “families.” While there are no official precise figures on the number of transgender or third-gender people living in the country, estimates range from 80,000 to 350,000-500,000, with perhaps 60-70,000 in Karachi alone.
From a lower-middle-class family, Bobby first became aware of her identity as a child. In public, she dressed like a boy, but alone in her room she would wear girl’s clothes, lipstick, and practice dancing. After running away from home for two months, her parents gradually came to accept her identity. Most are not so lucky. Shunned by their families, many have no option but to join close-knit hijra communities led by older gurus who take on the role of ersatz guardians, offering them protection.
With few completing formal education, employment opportunities are limited. Many have to endure ridicule by dancing openly in the streets or at weddings to scrape by a living or resort simply to begging. Others are involved in sex work with little education about safe sex and the dangers of HIV.
Vulnerable to physical and verbal abuse, they also have to bear the humiliating attitude of police officers, doctors at hospitals, and public officials, complains Bobby. Reports of beatings and other forms of violence directed against them are commonplace.
Gender non-conformists have existed through the annals of history. Transgenders have been regarded highly throughout the history of the subcontinent. There was nary a court without transgenders appointed in the women quarters. They served as advisers, watchmen, generals, and messengers. In an interesting piece on transgenders, a lane in the Mehrauli’s bazaar houses, Hijron ka Khanqah with some 50 graves claimed to be those of prominent transgenders over time.
Transgenders were appointed in different capacities since the Ottoman Empire, as were they in Safavid and Mamluk eras. Grants were awarded to them, both in the form of land and cash. If one recalls, in Tuzk-e-Babri, the autobiography by Mughal Emperor Babar, there is a longing for a young teenage boy.
Over time, in particular, in the era of British rule, the culture of transgenders was stigmatized as it was simply not understood by the alien rulers. Instead of appreciating differences and supporting cohabitation of different hues, the transgender community was marginalized and treated like a pariah where once they were equal contributing members to the society.
It hasn’t been easy for Honey. Her parents split up when she was young, and her mother died soon afterward. None of her relatives wanted to take care of her. After she was essentially abandoned, an older prostitute discovered her and put her to work in a garbage-strewn park selling sex. She was 8.
A decade and a half later, Honey is still a sex worker. She wears dark clothes, chipped purple nail polish, and a gold ring in her left nostril and her hair down the middle of her back. When asked how she feels each evening as she heads off to work, to stand in a line of other prostitutes along the railway tracks, waiting for customers, she shrugged.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I learned the world runs on money,” she said. “I learned that if I don’t have money, I don’t exist.’’
In many ways, Honey’s story is no rougher, lonelier, or more desperate than those of many other Hijras. Many are engaged in sex work, locked into service for a guru who takes most of their earnings.
Honey wouldn’t utter her guru’s name. She seemed scared to talk about her. Within the Hijra world, gurus fulfill the hybrid role of den mother, godfather, spiritual leader, and pimp. The gurus are Hijras as well, usually in their 40s or 50s.
There is a bit of a pyramid sales scheme within the Hijra community. Younger “chelas,” or disciples, are managed by mid-ranking Hijras who report up to gurus, who are often steered by their elder mentors. For every Hijra, the idea is to get as many chelas working for you as possible. The money flows up; the protection from abusive customers or police officers flows down.
Most recently a wave of persecution has been observed during which many transgenders were killed by assailants. On May 25, a transgender individual by the name of Alisha died in a hospital in Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after succumbing to gunshot wounds, with some blaming delayed medical care for her death after other patients allegedly complained and doctors debated whether she belonged in the male or female ward. Located in the northwest of Pakistan, it is the 5th reported case of violence in the province against transgenders this year. Pakistan’s hijras have faced a long battle to be accepted as full citizens with equal rights according to the country’s constitution. In 2012, a landmark decision by the Supreme Court decreed that they are issued with computerized national identity cards, thus for the first time officially listing their existence as a legal third gender.
“We were in the seventh heaven,” said Rana of the decision conferring many of the same rights, such as voting, property, and inheritance, as other citizens.
However, the National Database and Registration Authority, charged with issuing the cards under the Ministry of Interior, initially dragged its feet, requesting that they undergo humiliating medical examinations first.
The continued non-provision of cards means that many continue to be deprived of full civil rights as well as enrolment in the Benazir Income Support Program (social security program) and free National Health Program. Moreover, the transgender community has also been ghettoised into the haves and have-nots-those having Sehat Insaf Card (SIC) and those not having it. But what is the criterion that government has adopted while distributing SIC? Who from the transgender community was consulted for their needs? Were the ones who got SIC really deserving? It is, therefore, suggested that for before the commencement of any government programme at a national level-especially for such a marginalized and socially excluded faction of society-to make it more inclusive, a major chunk of initial beneficiaries should be taken from the local and the neediest segment of that community.
With the transgender community marginalized, are we not taking away their right to be contributing members of a healthy society? Nowhere does it indicate that their gender non-conformity conflicts with their ability to work as engineers, doctors, pilots, designers, so on and so forth. By ostracizing a community on many levels are we creating an effective minority? Will this serve us in evolving a well-knitted community moving forward together to achieve prosperity?
Other attempts to improve the status of hijras through affirmative employment policies and increasing opportunities have also proven insufficient, poorly paid, or even derogatory. The regional revenue office in Karachi resorted to employing hijras for debt collection by instructing them to dance outside debtors’ doors and so shame them into paying up.
Respect and dignity is the right of every citizen of Pakistan. The state must be proactive in not only securing the rights of the transgender community but also offering positions that allow them a decent living, helping them to become well-adjusted members of society. The state needs to formulate laws that ensure a certain percentage from this community is absorbed in different industries and occupations.