April issue 2015
The Other Sex and the City
Nights are the stuff during which legends are born in Heera Mandi (literally the diamond market, the red-light area), in the heart of Pakistan’s historic city of Lahore. The air in this swarming metropolis hangs heavy with the smoke and aroma of simmering street cuisine. The ear must endure a deafening cacophony of noises — the clanging of cooking utensils being used for the street food, competing with blaring sound systems airing Bollywood ‘item’ songs, both exotic and erotic in equal measure. It is here that the timeless mysteries of this bazaar’s nocturnal protocols are woven into a tapestry of a myriad untold tales.
Ah! The stories of loud and hushed laughter, of trysts and broken promises, of betrayals and unshed tears, of beauty and consuming passion, of intrigue and savage deals, of heartless infidelities, and of ruined lives … Punters, tourists, foodies, photographers and local residents throng the mandi as the day gives way to dusk, the bazaar’s bright lights defying the dark.
Behind this son et lumiere of sights, sounds and smells, runs a dark gnarled and narrow alley that holds the high and fallen of this androon sheher (inner city) together at its two ends, like an unsevered umbilical chord.
Bathed in its own bleakness and engulfed in the stench of its acrid, open sewers, this alley coils its way through the ravaged, unkempt remains of what once must have been splendid Art Deco mansions. And amid this crumbling labyrinth, lies the residence of Rosie.
Sitting before a chipped mirror in candlelight, tweaking and retweaking her make-up, ‘Ms’ Rosie examines her image closely: ignoring her thick, muscular neck, her hugely protruding Adam’s Apple, and the greenish hue left on her upper lip and chin after a fresh close shave, she layers another coat of red-wine lip gloss on her botox-bloated lips, glues on extra large artificial eyelashes and squirts a heavy dash of strong, locally-made perfume under her arms.
Life’s arduous journey is fraught with booby traps and mines for 22-year-old Rosie and her fellow transgenders in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, but she remains, it seems, blissfully unabashed by her genderless, cross-dressing status, and oblivious of the seediness that seeps from every crack in the wall, plastered with posters, in a room reminiscent of a devoted shrine to Bollywood screen sirens and pin-up boys.
Rosie is getting ready for a pre-wedding party, where she will spend much of the night performing high-voltage, hip-gyrating ‘item-numbers’ to Punjabi and Bollywood songs spiced with double entendre lyrics, through raw, sexually brusque and suggestive dance moves, for an exclusively men’s group celebrating a stag night.
These events are nothing if not erotically charged and rowdy. Rosie flutters her eyelashes: “I love dancing and the attention. But some clients expect more than that — that’s where the fun and trouble begin to emerge in equal measure. They often want it all, at once,” she says.
Life as a hijra — or khwaja sara, as Pakistan’s transgender community is known — is forever on the edge, Rosie says, recounting tales of extortion, sexual violence and predatory policemen aiding and abetting hijras’ psychopathic clients and dubious paramours.
They may appear a merry lot — exultant in their own existence. But behind this faÃ§ade is the grim story of ahijra’s solitary life, stigmatised and perilously vulnerable.
Most hijras describe themselves as ‘professional wedding dancers’ (women performers are frowned upon in Pakistan), but campaigners say their main source of income owes to sex work — invariably high-risk, unsafe, unguarded, and often brutally violent.
The hijra community and their traditions can be traced back 4,000 years in the subcontinent. Joining this group is an acutely serious, life-altering affair, and offers few personal choices. The khwaja sara community has attempted to appropriate a hierarchical social veneer, rituals, folklore and legends in order to articulate a sense of self-validation and carve out a niche for itself in traditional social structures.
Among the rites of inclusion into the hijra community, is a ritual involving the surgical removal of the male organs so as to effect a sex change from male to female. This gender re-assignment, or in plain words, castration, is a bizarrely hazardous procedure.
While leisurely looking at her watch, Rosie allows me to stretch our conversation beyond courtesies. She begins to recall her own castration process. The ‘operation,’ or quackery, takes place in a small room through a secret appointment with a ‘naai’ (barber) in a dingy room. The legs of the initiate are stretched open and tied apart to the bed posts while the hands and upper body are held down by another fellow transgender. The naai benumbs the genitalia and simply removes it with a sharp scalpel. The wound is stitched and left to heal. “It is scary. I have heard that many of my sisters have died during or after this procedure,” Rosie’s voice trembles. “I didn’t have any sense of loss after the operation, just pain. Excruciating, debilitating pain for the next several months. But I was just so driven by my passion to feminise myself into a swan,” she says.
This castration is coupled with rituals of physical transformation for new hijra community entrants. As the male exterior is scraped off, the new initiates neither cut their hair nor try to shave their faces. They receive a special facial from hijra experts, who thread away any facial hair. Then there’s the breast augmentation operation, if a new initiate or her ‘owner’ or ‘guru’ is willing to invest in her, that can cost anything up to 60,000 rupees.
Although often referred to simply as eunuchs, Pakistan’s hijra community is a heterogeneous, multi-layered and complex group. Many of the hijras, born with undefined sexual identity, are abandoned by their parents, while others choose to find meaning in their out-of-the norm lives by clinging on to their community. Whatever the case, most of them have not undergone gender reassignment surgery, according to campaigners. Specific socio-economic, medical and psychological services available in other countries are either absent or operate in the shadows in Pakistan. A plastic surgeon in Lahore, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he would only operate on hijras in the after-hours. “It would not raise the prestige of the clinic if they were seen here,” he said. “They come in with bandages on their breasts, which cause ulcers and lesions, threatening to commit suicide if we don’t operate.”
Rosie, who worked as a make-up artist to pay for silicon implants, sports a 36B bra under a red sequinned dress. “I’ve always felt like a girl in my soul,” she says, her voice now drenched in sadness. Shunned by her family, Rosie became a member of the community, under the auspices of a guru.
“Our gurus are our best friends and our worst enemies. We make a solemn pledge to hand over all our earnings to our guru in return for security, protection and shelter as most of us are either runaways or evicted by our families,” says Rosie. “Many are indeed like mothers, providing us isles of safety, protecting us against exclusion, despondency and deprivation — but some also buy and sell us, or barter us like cattle to other gurus, to other locations.”
She adds, “I remember returning from a performance at a wedding along with two of my community members and a driver in a rented car. We were stopped at a police check-point and severely interrogated by the policemen there. They accused us of carrying drugs and liquor. We had none. We were forced into a back room behind the check-post and were told that we were going to be strip-searched. I was raped, hit and hurt by the men, who made phone calls — even as they violated me — to their colleagues and friends inviting them to come over and join the fun and games. I was bleeding profusely. One of my transgender sisters was unconscious. For days my entire body was black and blue with bruises and sores.”
The mapping of structural violence — the use of force by state and civil society actors against transgenders, and the exploitation within the khwaja sara community — remains largely undocumented, even unspoken.
In fact, it seems, there is a pervasive resistance to developing an understanding of the khwaja saras as human beings.
I ask Rosie if she has dreams for the future. She smiles her characteristic ironic smile. “Dreams can be so very dangerous. They are like an agar batti (essence stick), forever smouldering and spreading aroma — but inevitably consuming itself completely.
“Yes, we can also be aggressive, especially when not handed money as we wind our way through traffic, begging. We clap and let out a mouthful of profanities. Our clapping is the announcement of our thirdness. We are visible in public, but our own world is forever shrouded in secrecy.
“When you think of us, you do not remember any small kindness that we may have shown to you or that we show to one another. You remember only the things that have shocked you and outraged your traditions and your sense of decency,” she says.
There are no free rides or meals for a transgender — they must constantly strive to earn. The prospect of liberating one’s self from living a false life and accepting the real self comes with a perilous price tag. In addition to virtual slavery and trafficking, few have choices beyond becoming willing sex objects for local males. The life-long social entrapment of many transgenders into sex work, reinforces the stigmatisation of their entire community as outcasts and fallen souls.
Back at the stag night party there’s gathering gusto. A group of possibly inebriated, excited, mostly married, men wearing regular shalwar kameezes, loosen their trousers and tunics, and dare each other to “feel up” Rosie and her co-performers Alisha and Rani. There’s loose talk of doing the “full monty” with the three dancers at some point.
As the evening begins to reach a climax, the men make good each other’s dares. They start fingering the hijras, filming each other’s advances on their mobile phones. Meanwhile, the fusion of music with bhangra beats,qawwali and ‘Sheila ki Jawaani’ blares louder than ever. And to add to this is the tinkling of the pazeb (ankle bells) tied around the performers’ shins, as they beat the ground with their often massive, masculine feet displaying painted toe-nails. The men then stagger forward to shower hundred rupee notes over their favourite dancers.
“Like any other human being, I too long for love and recognition as an equal child of God. But I get treated as a freak of nature — and like a self-fulfilling prophecy, I have begun to see myself as one. Now nothing matters, not even my own well-being. I don’t think twice about reckless living. No matter what, we will always be on the edges of society,” Rosie says with a mysterious, deep and sad smile as she pulls out a green 500 rupee note lodged deep within her bra, earned on stag night. With the same smile, she plants a subtle kiss on the stern visage of the Land of the Pure’s founding father printed on the bank note.