…when they can become valuable members of our society
I have often wondered why it is that generally there is hatred for ‘transgenders’ in Pakistan. The term means different things to different people. At a very basic level it means being born a male or a female but then realizing he or she does not subscribe completely to the gender they belong to, that it does not reflect the person that they are. Katy Steinmetz,writing for TIME magazine, says, “Referring to someone as ‘a transgender’ can sound about as odd as saying, ‘Look, a gay!’ It turns a descriptive adjective into a defining noun and can make the subject sound distant and foreign, like they’re something else first and a person second.” According to BBC News, “In India, a common term used to describe transgender people, transsexuals, cross-dressers, eunuchs and transvestites is hijra.” (15 April, 2014)
Law Prof K L Bhatia in his piece discussing the constitutional and legal status of transgenders writes, “Transgender is an umbrella term used for a wide range of identities and experiences including persons whose gender identity or gender expression or gender behaviour does not conform to their biological sex — male or female. They are described as ‘third gender’ as an institution that includes and comprises of hijras or eunuchs ornapunsaka or tritiya prakriti or kothis or aravanis or jogappas, etc. Either of the expressions used for third gender denote absence of procreative capability. TGC also includes persons who intend to undergo sex reassignment surgery (SRS) or have undergone SRS to align their biological sex with their gender identity in order to become male or female. SRS are generally called transsexual persons. Besides, there are persons who like to cross-dress in clothing of opposite gender, viz, transvestites.” (August 20, 2014)
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 advisors, 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 Baber, there is a longing for a young teenage boy.
Over time, in particular in the era of British rule, the culture of transgenders was stigmatised as it was simply not understood by the alien rulers. Instead of appreciating differences and supporting cohabitation of different hues, the transgender community was marginalised and treated like a pariah where once they were equal contributing members to the society. Nabiha Meher concurs with this view when she writes a blog piece, “The British rulers in India stripped the hijras of the laws that granted them the protection they received under Muslim rulers and regarded them as a menace to society.” (Hijras – The Third Sex)
This raises a question in my mind. With the tranasgender community marginalised, 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 ostracising 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?
In an interesting piece in NYT, “In a bid for a solution — and some publicity — the Clifton board borrowed a creative idea that alleviated tax woes in neighbouring India: It hired a team of transgendered tax collectors to go door to door to embarrass the rich until they paid. The TGs have collected $100,000 in about nine months, 10 times the cost of the programme.” (July 18, 2010)
The reality of the average transgender is exposed in a sad piece, “Being Transgender in Pakistan” in an interview with one such member of this community, Ashee Butt. The writer says, “Like many from her community who are abandoned by their families at an early age, Ashee sought refuge with a local hijra guru who taught her to sing and dance. These gurus act as father figures for the hijras, who are referred to locally as the guru’s ‘chailas’, or‘followers’, and together they form intimate communities that protect and fend for each other in good and bad times.
For the hijras in Pakistan, dance and song is the only way to earn a respectable living as their presence is considered auspicious on wedding and childbirth celebrations. However, they are not treated as equals unanimously by the conservative and liberal sections of Pakistani society. They live in secluded communities with their own kind, often in extreme poverty. Most are uneducated as the notion of a transgender child being brought up in a normal household and studying in a mainstream school is not an acceptable reality. As a result they often end up on the streets dressed in flashy clothes, faces caked with make-up, begging at traffic signals during the day and selling sex during the night.” (June 5, 2013)
In April 2011, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that hijras should be allowed to choose an alternative sex when they apply for their national identity cards. According to a local newspaper report, “The court directed NADRA to expedite efforts for issuance of National Identity Cards (NICs) to eunuchs, besides registering them as shemales. The court observed that eunuchs are Pakistani citizens, but they are deprived of various rights, including the right of having NICs.” It further stated, “NADRA in December 2010 had agreed to add a third option under the gender category in identity card forms. It had said the application forms for NICs would contain the third option of ‘Khawaja Sara’ (transgender) along with ‘male’ and ‘female’.” (April 26, 2011)
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 the society.
The writer is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled ‘A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.’ She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets at @yasmeen_9.