Undertones: Transwomen in Pakistan reclaim their ancestral heritage

This story is part of Undertones, Global Voices’ Civic Media Observatory‘s newsletter. Subscribe to Undertones.

Welcome to the 50th edition of Undertones, the newsletter in which we dive into little-known narratives from around the world.

This week we present to you perspectives regarding Pakistan’s queer communities thanks to researchers Fatima Zaidi and Ali Osman. We will see how far-right narratives from the United States and Russia are copy-pasted in Pakistan, and how Pakistani gender non-conforming communities try to remind their fellow citizens that the khwaja siras are embedded in the region’s religious, political, and cultural history.

In Urdu, the term khwaja siras refers to people who do not identify as male or female, but rather belong to a third gender, often by having “a feminine soul that was stuck in a masculine body”. The term also encompasses people who cross-dress and who overall do not conform to the strict male-female binary. They are referred to as hijras elsewhere in South Asia. We will use the terms khwaja siras, transgender, and queer interchangeably.

There are about 500,000 transgender people in Pakistan, but the number could be higher. Due to mounting societal and legal discrimination, they tend to live in tight-knit communities in large cities under the care of a guru (elder), speak their own distinct language among themselves, and get through by begging on the streets, working in informal markets, dancing in weddings and baby showers, and doing sex work. People in Karachi, Lahore, or Islamabad can spend their entire lives seeing khwaja siras from afar but never interact with them.

In 2018, Pakistan passed one of the most progressive laws for gender nonconforming communities, such as allowing them to change their gender to “X” on their documents. However, after months of campaigning by conservative religious groups and political parties, Pakistan’s top religious court overturned salient features of this law in May 2023, stating that trans people were endangering the Islamic way of life. The transgender community has filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, which, if ruled in their favor, could have the power to reverse the Shariat Court’s decision.

The following video showcases a khwaja sira dance, filmed by filmmaker and lecturer Sheba Saeed in 2020.

Many Pakistanis claim that khwaja siras are against Islam, but these queer communities largely identify themselves as mystic Sufis and practice Shia rituals.

Incidentally, Iranian Shia cleric Ayatollah Khomeini sanctioned sex change surgeries in a 1987 fatwa. “This could be a tacit acknowledgment that the khwaja siras community belongs to the Shia sect, even though we must view it in the Iranian context,” Fatima Zaidi, who comes from a Shia family, says.

However, the degree of mainstream Shia Muslim acceptance of khwaja siras as members of their religious community varies depending on the level of conservatism within the family. “Most often, the community lets them be and nobody interferes with them,” she says.

Shia Muslims are a minority in Pakistan, with about 15 percent or more of the population. Many Sunnis do not consider them Muslim, and Shias often face persecution. The main legal objection to the Shariat Court's anti-trans verdict contends that the judges did not consider Shia thought.

Besides their religious identity, the historical and cultural significance of khwaja siras in South Asia is an often overlooked aspect of this community. This is partly due to how the region’s education systems have wiped out their mention in history lessons, our researchers say.

“The present-day trans community in Pakistan enjoyed a higher social status in pre-colonial South Asia, even during the rule of Muslim Mughal emperors, thus implying that they had been accepted in Islamic societies,” our researchers say. “The community claims that their mention in the ancient Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain scriptures is proof that they have existed in the region for centuries.” Scholars and South Asian queer communities agree that their persecution has its roots in British colonial rule in 1858.

Khwaja siras served as advisors in the courts of Mughal emperors and were the only people allowed to go into areas reserved for the queen and female members of the royal family. Today, they face discrimination and lethal violence.

How this narrative moves online

Hina Baloch is one of the most vocal hijra activists in Pakistan. Here, she tweets a video of khwaja siras participating in “Parcham Kushai” (raising the flag of Hussain), a Shia ritual, ahead of the religious month of Muharram. According to Baloch, the ritual is being carried out in a historical mansion in a neighborhood where they have been residing for centuries.

The tweet implies that the trans community of Pakistan follows Islamic rituals and traditions with the utmost respect by only inviting senior gurus (elders) to participate in them.

The conservative backlash against queer communities’ “vulgarity and anti-Islamic values” is only one side of the coin. A new anti-trans narrative that is heavily influenced by far-right discourse in the United States and Russia has emerged. It places a big emphasis on the safety of ciswomen in schools (or bathrooms) and that transgender women are “men masquerading as women” or “homosexuals.”

In Pakistan, most higher education institutions are mixed, but some exclusively cater to women. “The argument for having separate institutions for women is based on the guise of providing them a ‘safe’ space to access education. It is in this light that the resistance to allowing transgender people into women’s universities must be viewed,” our researchers say. Most of these women students come from conservative and religious families.

Tolerance in allowing transgender people into women-only universities is seen as a Western agenda imposed on Pakistan, a country founded on Islamic principles. Yet this narrative makes space for transphobic anecdotes and ideas from Russian and U.S. far-right lawmakers.

“The basic argument is that Russia is a historic and powerful country, and if they are not allowing such initiatives in their country, then why should we as a Muslim country,” Ali Osman says. “It’s a transplanted narrative from the West.”

How this narrative moves online

In a tweet, famous Pakistani fashion designer Maria Butt spoke against transgender women being allowed admission to women-only universities.

She claims that the move will further limit safe spaces for women in the country and adds a short clip of U.S. Senator Tom Cotton speaking about an alleged incident in which a transgender person raped a girl.

The majority of comments on the post support the Butt’s argument. However, some users accuse her of “importing Western transphobia” while others have asked her to support her argument with proper studies and evidence.

What's next

Next January Pakistan will undergo high-stakes general elections, the first after the removal of Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2022. However, a portion of the transgender community fears not being able to vote if they do not receive their ID cards. The Shariat Court’s verdict forbade the gender marker “X” on national documentation.

“Right now, our biggest concern is whether our identity cards will have the correct gender marker. If so, how can we exercise one of the fundamental rights for which we have worked so hard?” asks Sheema Kermani, of the rights group Tehreek-e-Niswaan.

Khwaja siras persist in their efforts to emphasize their human rights, religious identity, and cultural heritage to fellow citizens in Pakistan.

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