PAKISTAN: Male to female identity in trans Hijra community brings flattery, hardship and discrimination

Anam Zehra – WNN Breaking

Hijra on the streets of Islamabad, Pakistan
Two different hijra groups, from Islamabad and Rawalpindi, playfully spar during a protest for equality on the streets of Islamabad, Pakistan during the spring of 2008. Image: Arun Reginald

(WNN) Islamabad: Bijli and Sania are two thirty-somethings from the Hijra community in Pakistan. Known as men who act, dress and appear to be women, I met them in the bustling center of an enclave of restaurants and diners in Islamabad draped in their dupattas and wearing heavy makeup.

With a titillating swagger they wandered from one table to the next in the humid June night; praising children for their beauty and blessing their futures; while admiring the virility of the men smoking hookahs.

Occasionally Bijli or Sania would get rewarded for their flattery with some money, while others avoided their gaze and told them to go elsewhere.

The word Hijras is a wide all-encompassing Pakistani Urdu language term used for eunuchs (khussras), hermaphrodites, and transsexuals. Today they have come to form a caste of their own in Pakistan. Often disowned by their families at childhood, some Hijras are sold or left to the care of gurus— matriarchs of the Hijra household, who become their only ‘real’ family.

Ostracized and condemned by world society, with no means of education or employment, their little options of earning income often leave them to only a few ways they can make a living — by begging, prostitution or dancing at weddings or baby showers.

“The dances too are a rarity now, as people can no longer afford them because of inflation. We go to our former employer’s houses and the guards at the gates kick us out,” explained Bijli.

Today it is estimated that there are up to 50,000 Hijras currently living in Pakistan. This estimate is hazy at best, due to the lack of a reliable consensus and, until recently, the lack of any institutional or public official acknowledgement that the Hijras of Pakistan exist at all.

Two years ago the Supreme Court of Pakistan, under Justice Iftikhar Chaudry, implemented a series of legislations granting the Hijras in the country the right to a third gender category on their CNICs (Computerized National Identity Cards) instead of the usual “male” category they were made to register with earlier. The legislation also called for the Hijra community to be treated as ordinary citizens, and called for a stop to police harassment. The fact that the new laws are actually bringing about any change on the ground besides a slew of media articles, however, is another matter.

“While abuse by ordinary citizens has significantly lessened, the police is our biggest problem!” Bijli exclaims in a mixture of Urdu and English phrases which she learned from Bollywood films. Her fiery personality is fitting to her Hijra name, which translates to thunder in Urdu.  “They say get out of the markets, go to the neighborhoods to beg. But the neighborhoods have the same people who can’t afford to pay every week; here in the bazaar there are people out shopping who have money to spare.”

“The police come and pick us up and drop us all the way at the other end of the city when they know how expensive transport back is. Sometimes they take us to the jail and lock us there until our guru comes and pleads with them. Sania here was arrested just two weeks ago under the Bhikari Act (Begging Act) and we had to go before a judge and bail her out.” “And you know how even the walls of the courts here ask for money,” A hesitant Sania added.

Pointing angrily at the nearest police station, Shalimar Thanna, Bijli went on, “They search us and confiscate the money the find. Some of them kick us as they walk by.” She explained how in their household if any Hijra says a curseword they are fined Rs. 5000 ($60) by the guru, the police however, have a norm of cursing them and making vulgar jokes on every encounter.

Even civilian organizations would join in the system of harassment. The police picked up the Hijras and would drop them off at the Edhi Center- one of Pakistan’s largest non-profits- employers of which would then refuse to let them go until the detained Hijras paid up. “Now their centers are too full with refugees from the floods to worry about us,” explained Sania.

As I took a few pictures of the two, a man from a nearby table shouted “Say Cheese!” Looking around at the people gawking at us, I asked them whether any of them ever got married. Sania shook her head. She explained that they were prohibited to marry legally by common and religious law. “The purpose of marriage is to procreate,” she said, “and a lot of us cannot do that.”

Whether such condemnation is religious or has other causes, calls for a historical assessment of the fate of the Hijras in South Asia. During the rule of the Muslim Mughal Emperors from the sixteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, Hijras held important positions across the Indian subcontinent, from palace guards to supervisors of the female quarters. This view began to change with the advent of British colonialism and its import of Victorian and Blackstonian norms through legislation.

Sania and Bijli do not know of anyone in their Hijra family who has an id card under this new gender category. They claim that the officers at NADRA (National Database and Registration Authority) were dismissive and laughed them away when Bijli unsuccessfullytried to get herself registered two months ago.

The process of achieving these identification cards is even more shocking, as the people claiming to be hermaphrodites will have to go through “scientific tests”, where they will be asked to pee in infront of scientists and sociologists who will then determine through the examination of the act whether the person-in-question is indeed not a male. How “scientific” this process is, I need not explain.

Upon asking the two long-haired, big breasted Hijras with maroon lipstick what would they want on their id cards if they had the choice, they unanimously replied “Female”.

Besides the awareness through urbanization, and the call for judicial reform, there is still much stigma attached to being gender queer in Pakistan. As much as a move towards recognition of the Hijras as equal citizens is necessary, it is important to consider whether the addition of a new gender category is liberating, or is in fact further legitimizing the otherness of the Hijras by categorizing them as something separate from the normative categories of male and female.


WNN intern journalist and media advocate Anam Zehra is co-founder of Shajareilm, an emerging youth organization in Pakistan. Her experience includes her work in the editorial department at one of Pakistan’s highest ranked newspapers, The News International. Currently, she is finishing her degree at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, U.S. where she is a radio producer on WMHC South Hadley 91.5 FM, covering political news and affairs in South Asia.


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