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“We are plagued by the tyranny of the gender binary”

— Interview of Dr Claire Pamment, Assistant Professor of World Theatre at The College of William and Mary, US

“We are plagued by the tyranny of the gender binary”
Dr Claire Pamment.

The News on Sunday: Can we say that the Pakistani society has not been inclusive to khwajasaras as acceptable human beings? Has it evolved in terms of accepting or not accepting khwajasaras as part of the whole society?

Dr. Claire Pamment: Hijra communities really bore the bad brunt of colonial policies in the nineteenth century when they were categorised as a criminal tribe under the British law, which subjected a whole range of gender-fluid individuals and practices to social surveillance. One reads police reports of hijras entertaining women in Eid gatherings and at shrines being penalised by crude bodily inspections.

In my work, I argue that the British authorities performed a stripping of these socio-religious cultural layers. Muslim South Asia has such rich legacies of gender fluidity — think of Wajid Ali Shah who was derided as a eunuch (i.e., lacking masculinity) by the British colonials to de-power the Muslim courts, the many khwajasaras who staffed not just harems at court but also key political roles, including the last prime minister under Bahadur Shah Zafar, Mahbub Ali Khan who is described as Chief Eunuch and Prime Minister in British chronicles.

Colonial modernities certainly inform contemporary prejudices against hijra/khwajasaras, with a strong class bias. These communities have perhaps always been marginalised, but at the same time, have found pockets of acceptance — in the lower class mohallas, in the space of the Sufi shrine — and have survived the scorn that has been lashed at them from the upper classes, and gained protection from social trauma under the guardianship of the guru system.

Read also: Understanding trans terms

Lots of developments are taking place under the auspices of human rights — the Supreme Court Ruling of 2009, subsequent NGO involvement and media attention. While this is bringing khwajasaras into the purview of the elite, it is also important to recognise those pockets of acceptance that have kept hijra/khwajasara culture alive and to grow from there.

Social media is offering a platform for protest, as witnessed most recently in the Sialkot case and the brutal neglect and death of Alisha by the Lady Reading Hospital, whose campaigns were orchestrated by Trans Action Khyber Pakhtunkhwa/FATA, KSS and FDI.

TNS: What do khwajasaras want from the society? Are their voices heard at any forum?

CP: Like anyone else in society they want to enjoy the privileges of citizenship: the rights to pray at a mosque or any other establishment of worship, to go on hajj, to inheritance, healthcare, police protection from harassment, the rights to education and to earn a livelihood. While khwajasaras are increasingly speaking for themselves in the media, getting jobs and working to formulate policy, I worry that much policy from the state and the NGOs doesn’t hear their voices enough.

The human rights petition in Pakistan’s Supreme Court in 2009 which was a progressive step — really a pioneer in trans battles world over — was born out of Almas Bobby and other khwajasaras’ activism. Several khwajasaras had been arrested and abused by police in Taxila for dancing at a wedding party. Bobby filed a petition against the police action and orchestrated a vibrant protest outside of Taxila police station to an audience of media cameras that got the arrested khwajasaras released; the police officers in question suspended, and captured the attention of Khaki and the Supreme Court.

Though pivotal to the Supreme Court case, Almas Bobby was not invited to the initial Supreme Court hearings, dance remained under trial, and the guru system was deemed oppressive. Khwajasaras were almost exclusively framed within a victim-saviour trope, stifling khwajasara voices, their activism and in the case of the wedding dancers, their labour and livelihood.

The Supreme Court, instead, made room to define legitimate identities for khwajasaras, to ‘put these individuals in the mainstream of life,’ an assimilationist paradigm, which runs the danger similar to that of the British colonials, speaking for rather than with khwajasaras.

TNS: How, in your view, does the media deal with their issues? Has the social media been of some help in making their voices heard?

CP: The media has played a crucial role in recent years. If the Supreme Court recommendations have been sparsely implemented, the print and television media has been the first port of call for many khwajasaras in pointing out the discrepancies. This hasn’t always been positive though — there have been cases of careless and unethical misreporting vis the vigilante aunties and certain foreign media outlets who have misidentified khwajasaras as gay men, which has only worked to further social ostracism.

Increasingly, social media is offering a platform for protest, as witnessed most recently in the Sialkot case and the brutal neglect and death of Alisha by the Lady Reading Hospital, whose campaigns were orchestrated by Trans Action Khyber Pakhtunkhwa/FATA, KSS and FDI. This has prompted a flurry of social media activity where khwajasaras are speaking out against social oppression.

But many khwajasaras lives fall out of the radar of these media outlets. For example, there is great work being done in Multan by the khwajasara Hajji Nargis who appeared in the television media when contesting a seat in the 2013 national elections, but the smaller yet critical day-to-day maneuverers she performs in door-to-door badhai, offering relief efforts to the poor, setting up a school, and running a political party often gets eclipsed.

TNS: Is “transgender” the right word to describe a person with the biological defect? Why is there confusion in using words, such as eunuch, transvestite, transsexual, hijra, etc?

CP: I wouldn’t describe khwajasaras as having a defect. I think they are a great blessing to society as to many homes which still welcome khwajasaras to bestow God’s blessings. For many layers of Pakistani society — like other societies — we are plagued by the tyranny of the gender binary. For khwajasaras who experience firsthand both genders and the entire spectrum between — they can teach society a lot. As Bindiya Rana once playfully asserted, we are both men and women, like when a great nation gets together, they create a superpower’.

There is a lot of contestation about correct gender identifications world over. In South Asia, some of this language carries much hurt — ‘eunuch’ used by the British legislators. Identities are diverse. The Supreme Rights hearing and NGO efforts have helped build international transgender allies, have provided an outlet for individuals in Pakistan who don’t necessarily identify with the culture of hijra/khwajasara, but transgender and khwajasara are not synonymous.

Considering the class factors that have so often worked to exclude khwajasaras, I would argue that it is important not to subsume hijra/khwajasaras under the trans-nationalising transgender umbrella. As a hyper-visible category which has been known for public performance, and a legacy of struggle, survival and activism, khwajasara carries a culture and with it the possibilities of movement from door-to-door badhai — to the Supreme Court — to national politics and back again.


Teesri Dhun (The Third Tune), co-directed by Claire Pamment and Iram Sana, is a documentary theatre devised with a khwajasara and transgender cast, developed out of her present research on khwajasara performance and activism (supported by SSHRC). It opens at Alhamara 16-17 December. 

Ather Naqvi


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