A little known plaza on Ghazi Road recently became a venue for people with distinct gender identities and sexual orientations — intersex, transgender, cis and others. They were huddled together, and chatting up quite a storm.
As it turned out, the evening’s main activity was the screening of a documentary by Zahra Lau, a Ph.D scholar from Beijing, China, whose research subjects are the ‘khawaja saras’ of the subcontinent.
Introducing herself on the occasion, Lau revealed how while conducting her study she had come across Aashi Butt, the guru of khawaja saras based in Heera Mandi, Lahore. This was in 2011. “Initially, Aashi Butt was hesitant and unsure about talking to me,” she said. “But soon she realised that I didn’t mean to sensationalise the subject. In fact, she became so fond of me that she started calling me ‘baiti’ (daughter).
“The community is my second family now.” No wonder, Lau titled her documentary as Ladies of My Family.
The film approaches the lives of this disadvantaged community from multiple angles, highlighting not only their day-to-day problems but also the bigger challenges they have to face because the state law wouldn’t acknowledge them and the society wouldn’t embrace them.
The film also touches taboo subjects like the sex work the khawaja saras engage in, their right to marriage, and their transitions.
It is shot in a rather informal way, clearly on a shoestring budget, and many of the film’s scenes could qualify for candid-camera videos. But eventually, its fragmented structure seems to lend a certain emotional credence to the disturbing stories being told on screen.
It is definitely disturbing to see how the khawaja saras — more popularly and, sometimes, disparagingly, referred to as ‘hejras’ or ‘khusras’ — face extreme discrimination in matters relating to health, housing, education, employment, immigration, and any sort of bureaucracy that, even after acknowledging them as ‘the others,’ has failed badly in affording them basic civil rights. Add to it the insensitivity and apathy shown towards them by the general — or ‘normal’ — people, and it isn’t hard to imagine the turmoil they might be going through in their lives.
The remotely located plaza, thus, provides them with their much-deserved private space where the khawaja saras of different kinds gather and listen to and empathise with each other’s problems over shared laughter. The documentary also serves as a cathartic tool for them, as it takes the viewer from the time they are abandoned by their blood relations to when they are forced to earn a living by begging on the roads, or dancing, and also paid sex. It also shows how they are ridiculed in public spaces, and harassed as well as victimised.
Aashi Butt is one of the main characters in the documentary. She is shown expressing her feelings of loneliness and betrayal, “We cry alone. We sleep alone. We have no families. Our secluded community becomes our family.”
The documentary also focused on khawaja saras’ right to marriage. Maulana Muhammad Zia-ul-haq, who was one of the religious clerics who gave the controversial fatwa on khawaja saras’ marriage, sometime in June last year, makes an appearance in the film. He explains, “We believe that the khawaja saras who are visibly male can marry any woman or female khawaja sara. Likewise, those khawaja saras who are visibly female can marry any man or male khawaja sara. However, marriage is haram (forbidden) for those khawaja saras who are neither male nor female (i.e intersex).”
The documentary ends with Lau stating that “There are problems and miseries, and there are also happiness and hope. The truth has many faces. Neither me nor you can tell a true story. My family members, whether they are true ladies or not, are born and die here. Life goes on. May God bless my family members.”
The crowd which had come to see the documentary was neither too large nor too small but of a viable size, and everyone was found interacting with the producer-director-writer Zahra Lau at the end of it.