Gender of a Lesser God
The air inside the hujra is thick with smoke from cigarettes and hashish joints. Men, about 20 of them, relax at this private function in the outskirts of Peshawar, sipping alcohol and making small talk. Others are getting edgy, wondering when the music and dance will start.
Inside the hujra compound, Sohana adds a few last touches to her dark make-up, which has rendered her face a virtual mask, all emotion buried under the pancake she has on. It is only the expression in her eyes that seems alive. She walks out of the room, the bells on her ghungroos (anklets) making a loud tinkling sound, alerting everyone to her arrival.
She looks at her audience appraisingly, and then, with her eyes, sends out a promise of what lies ahead before breaking into a slow, sensuous dance. Soon she is a blur of shiny dress and sexy moves, carefully choreographed in keeping with the beat.
Sohana, a trans-woman, is much in demand at such private gatherings due to her fair complexion and feminine features. She comes from the Orakzai Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), bordering Afghanistan, but fled the tribal agency when she was only 14. For the past 12 years she has lived in Peshawar at Iqbal Plaza, an area which has become home to the transgender community in the city.
“I was born in a religious family in an ultra-conservative region,” says Sohana. “But I wasn’t allowed to study in a mosque, let alone a school, because of my effeminate bearing.”
As a teenager, Sohana befriended a local transgender and they would meet out in the fields or elsewhere to play and dance, acting out as women. She shuts her eyes and gesticulates with her hands, as she recounts how they used to dance in the isolation of the fields, away from the watchful gaze of their family members.
But then one day Sohana’s elder brother saw them dancing in the fields. “That day, I faced terrible hate and persecution from my own blood,” she says. Sohana tried to seek refuge by hiding in the bathroom, but her brother caught her by the hair and struck her head against the wall, dragging her out and kicking her as she begged for mercy. No one came to her rescue, not even her mother who she says always tried to support her — “her love for me never changed” — but who was afraid of the men in the family. “I was beaten for hours till I was all black and blue. But then my brothers and cousins have broken my bones more than once for not talking and walking like a man. Once my father even tried to shoot me, but my mother came between us and he didn’t. It was an unforgettable war of love and hate.”
Her father and brothers wanted her to behave like a man, to go out, sit with men of the community in the hujra and interact with them, instead of staying holed up in the house. But she says, when she did go out, people on the streets would hoot ‘hijra’ (transvestite) and try to touch her genitalia to see what she had. “I am a female soul in a male body, but my family and society at large could not understand this,” says Sohana, drying the tears that roll down her face as she speaks, with the scarf she is wearing.
Frustrated by Sohana’s inability to become the man they wanted, her father, brothers and cousins then restricted Sohana to the house. She contends, “In other words, I was ‘house arrested.’ Many times my brothers locked me up in a room or a washroom to hide me when guests came around.” Finally, the family elders — including her father, brothers and cousins — decided her fate. “I was informed by one of my well-wishers who was part of the jirga (council of tribal elders) that the family had decided to kill me,” says Sohana, refusing to disclose the name of her sympathiser for fear of causing him harm.
One early morning, she sneaked out of the house and walked to the main road leading to Peshawar. A driver with a pick-up truck full of poultry gave her a free ride to Peshawar. She hung on to the chicken cages atop the truck all the way from Orakzai to Peshawar, and once in Hastnagri, went looking for the transgender community, whereupon she found Farzana Jan.
Farzana treated Sohana like her daughter and disciple; she became Sohana’s mentor and taught her how to dance. “Farzana gave me true love that I had sought for so long.” Farzana said she felt compelled to protect Sohana because the alternative — sending her home — was too dire a prospect to even consider. She cites the example of another transgender in FATA, who was recently killed by her own brothers and cousins. “Zulfi was killed by her relatives for ‘humiliating’ the family. She was born in FATA and her family still lives in the tribal area. They were angry because Zulfi chose the life of a transgender and the profession of entertaining and performing. She fled to Mardan and was living and working there, but after locating her whereabouts, her family took her back home and killed her,” says Farzana.
For nearly 13 years now, Sohana has lived with the transgender community in Peshawar. Although she was kidnapped and gang-raped in her early days in the city — leaving her deeply traumatised — she managed to move on. While she is far happier, with many clients and friends, is free to dance — her source of earning (she earns Rs. 2000 to 4000 per night for dancing at weddings, which is enough for food, make-up and clothes) — and has a boyfriend who loves her and buys her gifts, she says she still lives in fear that by earning a livelihood through performing, she could lose her life if her family were ever to locate her. And Sohana misses her mother, with whom she has had no contact except a solitary phone conversation four years ago.
Because of the recent attacks on, and murder of, transgender people in Pakistan, news of the community and its persecution in society has regularly featured in the mainstream media. However, this news is more focused on the bigger cities. Little is known about the transgenders in the conservative tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border where a patriarchal culture values manliness and martial characteristics, and looks on men lacking manly traits as a source of shame. Along with their families, society treats them as pariahs — a stigma and a disgrace to family ‘honour,’ especially in a conservative milieu like FATA.
According to Census 2017, the population of FATA has reached 5.1 million — a figure that has been contested by tribal social activists and politicians as incorrect and biased. The census data claims that the entire population of transgenders in Pakistan is 10,418, with only 913 of them living in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). And only 27 transgender persons were registered in the census in FATA.
For a region that has seen much radicalisation and militancy in recent years, the people of FATA have remained without basic human rights since Pakistan’s independence. The country’s constitution does not apply to FATA, and people are ruled under the discriminatory Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) that the locals dub a “black law” for denying them human rights such as freedom of expression, association, and recourse to justice. Even though measures are afoot to “mainstream” FATA by extending the same rights to the region that citizens enjoy in the rest of Pakistan, it is only realistic to accept that reforms will take years to become operational.
Taimur Kamal, a transgender rights activist, says the marginalised transgender community lives at high risk in FATA. He says that besides the often harsh treatment meted out to them by their families, cases of harassment of transgenders at the hands of militants, criminals, and even the police, have been reported.
According to Blue Veins, an organisation working for transgenders’ rights and protection in KP and FATA, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa alone, 51 transgenders have been murdered since 2015, and 120 cases of violence against them have been reported in 2017 to date.
Hayat Roghani, the writer of Nenzak (Male Doll), the first Pashto novel on transgenders, says, “Transgenders are thought to bring shame and dishonour to the family in subcontinental society. In this region, transgender children are a stigma for the family and in the extremely backward and conservative tribal region, parents even consider transgender kids the cause of bad luck.”
According to Farzana Jan, the President of the Transgender Association in KP, stereotypes dominate in conservative Pakistani society. “The state and society don’t give us space to live like normal human beings,” she maintains. The state was not even willing to grant us our genuine right of Pakistani citizenship. That’s why, until August 2017, when the word ‘trans’ was finally introduced in the gender column of the application form for the NIC because of extreme pressure from the country’s Supreme Court, getting a National Identity Card (NIC) was virtually impossible,” Farzana adds.
Since the majority of the trans people in Pakistan were, and continue to be, abandoned by their families at a very young age, in place of their parents, their respective ‘gurus’ may now serve as the custodial authority for transgenders applying for NICs for the verification process required by the National Data Base and Registration Authority (NADRA).
In Budget 2016, the KP government announced that a sum of Rs. 200 million had been allocated to the transgender community for vocational training, and officials from the Social Welfare Department say that registration forms for this purpose had been sent to the transgender community in the province. But due to the negligence of the provincial government, the allocated budget lapsed.
Meanwhile, according to the prevailing rules and regulations, FATA is a federal subject and transgenders there will not receive any share of the provincial budget. According to activist Taimur Kamal, “FATA transgenders cannot declare themselves openly. If they did so, family members would silence them because acknowledgement of their gender would disgrace family honour.”
And even though Census 2017 estimated that only 27 transgender persons were registered in FATA, the NGO Blue Veins, based in Peshawar, claims the number is much higher. “Our organisation assisted 250 transgenders from the Kurram agency alone, during the conflict there,” says Qamar Naseem, who heads Blue Veins. Although Naseem doesn’t have any proof of the numbers, he says according to his research, there are somewhere between 700 — 900 transgenders in FATA.
With his long black beard, white turban and long white tunic, Naveed Khan looks the quintessential evangelist — which he is. But then you notice his heavily kohled-eyes and his mannerisms that don’t quite gel with that image. Khan visits sleazy neighbourhoods in Peshawar on a regular basis for a “noble cause.” His haunts in the old city are the “notorious” parts of the city where street criminals, drug addicts, beggars and those generally down-on-their luck abound. Every Thursday, he enters the mosquito-ridden streets that reek of open refuse, with a smile on his face and strong cologne splashed on his clothes and skin. He knocks at a door and from inside a feminine voice asks, “Who is it?” When Khan identifies himself, the sound of the bolt on the door being unlocked is heard in the quiet street.
Naveed Khan is led to the second floor of the small house, where the residents are waiting to meet him. After a few minutes of exchanging pleasantries and drinking a glass of water, Khan gets down to the business he is here for: preaching. In the religious sermon he delivers, he denounces ‘un-Islamic’ customs and enjoins Islamic values. It is a long sermon and his audience — a group of eight transgender persons dressed in women’s clothes — sits quietly, in rapt attention.
The preacher comes to this place not for entertainment, as do most people, but to bring these transgenders into the fold of “respectable professions.” He moves his hands and moistens his lips with his tongue every few minutes. He doesn’t say anything derogatory about dancing or prostitution, but at the end of his sermon, prays for a decent life for his flock and asks them to offer prayers five times a day and serve time with the Tableeghi Jamaat (a proselytising movement with a large following in Pakistan). All of them promise to do so.
Khan was born in FATA in a modest family with two brothers and two sisters. Until recently, he lived and worked as a transgender himself, dressing as a woman and performing at weddings and circumcision parties for eight years. But then, he says, “Due to family pressure and the humiliating treatment meted out by society, I quit my alter identity and profession, although in the beginning it was very difficult to adjust outside the support of my own community.”
As a transgender, Naveed Khan says he lived under dire threat from the police, criminal elements, family and society. Then he met a local member of the Tableeghi Jamaat who motivated him to live a ‘respectable’ life. “I would not have joined the TJ had it not been for the persecution. I suffered at the hands of my family and society,” says Khan. “I was beaten harshly by my brothers and cousins, and told if I didn’t quit my profession, I would be killed.”
Now he says he wants to rescue his transgender friends from the “dirty and sinful” profession of performing and prostitution. “Dance and prostitution are not allowed in Islam and it shouldn’t be practiced. Due to lack of awareness they [transgenders] live in a well of sin,” says Khan.
Surprisingly, even though Khan has been with the Tableeghi Jamaat for 12 years, the hooting and the taunting still continues to haunt him. “Recently I preached on the outskirts of the city and people paid attention, but as they left, I could hear the whispers: “Nice speech delivered by a ‘tableeghi hijra.’ “Sometimes I want to curse them, ‘Oh Lord make their offspring like me.’ But I am vulnerable. I can’t change who I am and I can’t fight them.” So he maintains that despite getting angry, he remains calm, and just leaves the venue.
Khan is now married and a father of four daughters living in the tribal area and working as an electrician. He doesn’t want to disclose his real name or that of the place where he lives. He fears the stigma will follow him to his hometown. “I have buried my old profession and wish to show my friends the pious path. No one would marry my daughters if the people of my village knew my dancing past.”
In the absence of other means of entertainment such as cinemas, proper playgrounds and the theatre, performances by transgenders at weddings, circumcisions and other festivities have always been popular in FATA.
But after FATA came under the Taliban, life changed. It was many things, among them the ban on shaving. Men who were clean-shaven had their faces slashed with an iron comb. Women became virtually invisible since they were not permitted to leave their homes without their spouses or fathers. And music and celebratory performances everywhere were banned, forcing musicians and artists to leave the region or take up other professions. In Mohmand Agency, transgenders are not allowed to perform at marriages or at private functions. Interestingly, this particular ban is not imposed by the foreign/Taliban militants, but by the local mullahs and elders, says Rahim Shah, a FATA-based politician. “The local fundamentalists consider music and dance vulgar, even though there is no official notification banning these things. But if anyone violates this unwritten and undeclared decree, their family is made to pay a heavy price in the shape of a financial fine.”
Pinky is from Bajaur, an area on the Pak-Afghan border, which has remained under the Pakistani Taliban in the recent past. Pinky doesn’t want to reveal her real name or the location of her home, only speaking on the phone when other family members are not around. The reason: A few weeks ago a transgender was killed by her relatives in FATA for adopting the “stigmatised profession” of dancing in public events.
Pinky recalls her life’s journey as a transgender in Bajaur. At school and the religious seminary where she was sent to read the Quran, her classfellows and teachers made her life miserable, she recounts. They would touch her “private parts” to see whether she was male or female. Once when she arrived late for school, the teacher humiliated her in front of the class saying: “Hijra, did someone take you to the fields to have sex?” After that, she never went back to school.
“If I make a mistake or do something wrong unintentionally, people say that is because I am a hijra and that I will never learn,” says Pinky. “The transgender community in Pakistan has always suffered an identity crisis: neither the government nor society accept them in their present biological state. Having transgender friends and wearing women’s clothes is my desire, but I can’t do it in the conservative tribal region.”
Pinky says even though, unlike Sohana, she has chosen to stay at home, she lives in a state of constant depression. “I kill my soul every day, behaving and dressing up like a man.” Pinky’s family has strictly banned her from moving out of the house and attending functions at her relatives’ homes.
She maintains one of these days she will leave home due to the “rigidness” of her father and her brothers’ attitude. She has no idea of what big cities are like, nor has she any contact with anyone who could support her. Nevertheless, she says, “I want to live my life in a free environment and choose what I want to do and how to dress.”
And while FATA is the worst in terms of human freedoms because of tribal traditions, coupled with the advent of the Taliban, other areas have also suffered, with transgenders often being the victims. When the Taliban took over Swat in northern Pakistan, they publicly killed Shabana, a transdancer from the area. The deceased artist lived in the centuries-old Banrr Street and performing was her family’s profession for decades. For the militants, transgenders were a source of vulgarity and adultery, so when the Taliban started imposing their writ in the valley, known for having the largest transgender population in KP, the community left for safer places.
Maulana Shaukat Ullah has graduated from the famous pro-Afghan Taliban seminary Haqqania in Akora Khattak in district Nowshera. He condemns dance and soliciting sex as unIslamic activities. “Islam doesn’t allow anyone to run brothels,” says Shaukat referring to the transgender community. “The state and society are not responsible for providing alternate livelihood opportunities to transgenders. Jobs should be created for this marginalised community in private organisations and the government sector.”
The Maulana says that in recent years, good-looking young boys have changed their outlook and taken to “sinful” dancing and prostitution disguised as transgenders. “Islam doesn’t like such people,” he contends.
But according to Professor Zafar Safi, who belongs to the Mohmand Agency and teaches at the Department of Sociology at the University of Peshawar, the phenomenon of the transgender, which conservative Pakistani society treats as a social taboo, is a matter of science and human rights that should be dealt with accordingly. “People have misunderstood transgenders from the very beginning and push them into isolation. Evolution is much slower in Pakistan and people tend to accept stereotypes instead of thinking critically and logically.”
The attitude of the state only reinforces society’s biases, says Safi. “If the government gave proper attention to them, transgenders would not be forced to sell sex or perform at weddings. Society views transgenders only as a source of entertainment, not equal citizens — not even humans.”
Traditionally, transgender people are referred to as khawajasaras in the South Asian context. The term, which refers collectively to transgender people, transvestites, hermaphrodites or eunuchs, has roots in the history of the transgender people when they were employed as caretakers, instructors in art and etiquette for princes, princesses and messengers in the royal harems from the Ottomon Empire in Turkey to the Mughal Empire in India.
With the fall of these empires, the transgender khawajasaras that were held in high esteem in the courts and harems fell from grace, their status reduced to lowly beggars and sex workers. From respectable workers in royal palaces to objects of social scorn and persecution, theirs is a sad story of a fall from riches to rags, from enjoying royal favour to living invisibly on the margins of society.
For centuries the transgender community has been facing humiliation from society and the state, says Taimur Kamal. “In FATA due to the complicated tribal system, transgenders can never find roots. They run away to bigger cities for safety, support and livelihood.”
Due to lawlessness, the tribal areas are like a jungle, says Zar Wali Afridi, a resident of Khyber Agency. “There is no policing system and the locals live under the centuries-old, British-made 1901 FCR, not according to the country’s constitution,” Afridi adds. In such a milieu, transgenders are particularly vulnerable. They can be sexually assaulted, kidnapped and killed, and more often than not, no one is held accountable, more so because their lives are not seen as worth anything. And changes in the laws of the country notwithstanding, that doesn’t seen likely to change any time soon.