The issues of the Transgender and Khawaja Sira communities within Pakistan today may be similar, but they are both different communities in their own right.
By Manaal Farooqi
Conversations about transgender and non-binary peoples are popping up in media outlets more frequently—particularly in the West. While great strides and conversations are being had about the rights and equity that Transgender individuals have been historically denied, most discourse around the issue seems to be coming from a predominantly Western perspective.
This is ironic considering many different cultures have for thousands of years allowed for more fluid ideas of gender outside of the Western binary of male and female. Many communities across the world have traditions that involve different ideas of gender, sexuality and gender expression as well. These communities have essentially been at the forefront of these conversations prior to colonialism, yet are left out of the global discourse on these relevant topics.
In particular, the case of the Khawaja Sira or “third gender” community in South Asia, who have held a long history of alternate gender norms and sexuality, are only now being recognized in the West as not only valid in their gender identities but also as groundbreaking. As of 2012, the population of Khawaja Siras was recorded at 50,000 people after a push for the Pakistani government to include a category for the community in the national census. This was also followed by winning an integral battle to have the third gender option on national ID cards in the country.
However, while strides have been made, the narratives in which the community is being framed are contradictory to what their actual identities are—many Khawaja Sira don’t identify as Transgender as traditionally they belong to a third gender instead. Western media outlets and also those within the subcontinent have been conflating South Asia’s third gender with Transgender identities, essentially leading to the erasure of both a centuries old and (re)emerging community.
In particular the Khawaja Sira tradition re-emerged with British colonization and rule in South Asia. Qasim Iqbal, a prominent HIV/AIDS and sexual health activist in Pakistan, states that:
“Hijras have a special place in the South Asian version of Islam. People used to believe that God gave them two genders, so they must be God’s special, chosen people. Hundreds of years ago, Hijras had a tremendous amount of respect. In the 1800s, the British outlawed sodomy and cross dressing, and brought with them a conservatism that can still be felt today.”
While the Khawaja Sira community has survived the onslaught of British conservatism that came with the colonization of the subcontinent, its impact is still visible today. Despite incremental progress, the community still faces violence. This affects both the Transgender and the Hijra community as cases of police violence are commonplace across the country. Accessibility for both groups to services such as healthcare, government services and employment remain difficult due to lack of accommodating infrastructure and discrimination as well.
A member of the LGBTQ community, Jalal* can also trace the change in attitudes towards the Khawaja Sira community from Western influence and the influence from Wahhabism (a more conservative interpretation of Islam) as well:
“They had a very distinctive space, they were given particular roads and spaces for them and had a progressive, productive role in society as well. They were revered as spiritual entities- they had a large acceptance in society… In recent years society has been influenced a lot by the West and the West has a lot of homophobia. Obviously that creeped into our society which then paired with the conservative Muslim faction of society. Their roles have been subdued and suppressed now—it wasn’t always like this.”
With the import of Western gender norms and homophobia in particular, both communities have seen some changes in how they are addressed in wider society. The prominence of Western media worldwide is essential to understand when looking at how a centuries old tradition can be stigmatized in the age of globalization.
Jalal also shared that while there are differences between the Trans and Khawaja Sira community that “they’re not the same… but they become one wider category within society.” This is why the systemic and societal issues that both communities endure are shared, as they are often seen as two groups within a larger community.
However it is crucial to recognize that there is a growing Transgender community in Pakistan today, and they rightfully identify as such and that, they belong to a completely different community from the Hijra. As certain media covers news about the Hijra community, conflating them with the Transgender community is a disservice to both groups within Pakistani society. The lack of actual understanding that gender identities aren’t always within the Western binary, along with a deep lack of cultural or historic understanding of South Asia’s third gender, erases the struggles of both groups.
*Raphay, a member of the LBGTQ community who self identifies as Trans also has issues with the Western gender binary, “I do sometimes feel that Western culture often falls into gender binary. In Pakistan we do sometimes find effeminate males who outwardly do not present themselves in masculine manners.”
He states that, “Myself being Trans. I am really tired of trying to fit myself into gender binaries when I want to focus on my spirit… I think that the struggle to achieve binary is such a waste of time when I think of what humanity really needs.”
A member of the Khawaja Sira community, Sunny, who works for NAZ Pakistan which assists LGBT youth in Pakistan, sees a stark difference in the Trans and Khawaja Sira experience.
“Some Khawaja Siras or Hijras of Asia say that they are not women. A trans woman is a woman… Those who are left in the middle, who consider themselves both, he is just a Hijra or you can call [them] a third gender.”
However, while the communities mostly respect each other, there are factions which don’t see eye to eye.
Raphay also echoes the sentiment: “the Trans and Hijra (Khawaja Sira) communities unfortunately have also become subjected to a social strata. They often live and socialise in the same gatherings, but this community (Khawaja Sira) sadly is only comprised of lower income groups. It makes me very sad when I say this, but people with more education and income who are gay or even Trans stigmatize and do not want to gel into or support the actually community which is traumatized by lack of education, poverty and societal pressures.”
It seems that the lower classes adhere to the ideology of belonging to the Khawaja Sira community as that is something that has been culturally prevalent and understood in all echelons of Pakistani society. It also grants them access to expressing their gender and sexuality in a way that is more recognizable in Pakistan, as it’s been a part of the tradition and culture for millennia.
On the other hand, it seems that the Trans community in Pakistan associates more with the Western understanding of the LGBTQ community and has had more access to resources and education around Trans identity. Access to resources plays a large role in this as the upper classes have the privilege and access to learn more from Western conceptions of LGBTQ identity which may be seen as more “modern,” while the Khawaja Sira communities predominantly have their own traditions, cultures and learnings to access. However, there are prominent Trans figures in media from the lower classes. It begs the question of why Trans identities that are seen as more “Western” are more accepted in the mainstream than Khawaja Sira identities.
The issues of the Transgender and Khawaja Sira communities within Pakistan today may be similar, but they are both different communities in their own right who not only deserve true equity and access but also should be respectfully considered as different communities with different histories and needs. By conflating both groups as the same, it not only erases both a history and a culture of a third gender, but it also erases the differences and tensions between both groups. Media both within and outside of Pakistan should focus on understanding these differences and tensions as both groups play a larger role in both society and ultimately play a role in the global discussions on gender, sexuality and identity as well.
Even as these communities tease out their tensions, they are still succeeding in reaching their shared goals. This includes having Khawaja Sira communities included on the census, having an alternate gender on ID cards and having visible Trans women in media as well. These feats are markers of a society that is more open to change than one may suppose—and while there is still a lot of work to reach full equity for both these groups, those outside of them can start by understanding them.
Both communities are bastions of resilience in Pakistan today and with both their separate and shared struggles, one thing remains clear—Pakistan’s notions of gender and identity are shifting and challenged to create a better space for its historical third gender and for it’s emerging Trans community.
Manaal is a writer and community organizer in Toronto. She primarily writes about issues pertaining to violence against women, Islamophobia, South Asia and race. Twitter: @ManaalFarooqi
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