Karachi: When Bindiya was a teenager, every evening she would put on a shimmering outfit, load on her makeup, and go out to dance. “This was all our life was: dress up, dance, and live off our spoils.”
It was a long practiced custom in Pakistan to invite trans women to celebrations, especially weddings, to sing and dance and amplify the revelry. The better the singing and dancing, the more money they’d collect. But over the years the practice has slowly faded and now, at 48, Bindiya Rana and her 50 apprentices or “chelas” hardly get any invitations. But as the invitations dried up, Bindiya’s activism moved into high gear, culminating in her becoming, in 2013, the first person from Pakistan’s “third gender” category to contest a general election. Her high profile has also led to extreme responses, everything from an assassination attempt to making an appearance on the silver screen.
Despite all her achievements, including setting up an advocacy group for the transgender community, Bindiya Rana does not officially exist. Her national identity card still identifies her as a man named Abdul Aziz. This is also the name mentioned in all documents as the owner of her parents’ property in Bindiya’s hometown, Lyari, a part of metropolitan Karachi famous for producing footballers and gangsters.
Bindiya’s activism helped push forward an effort to have khwaja sara — an Urdu term encompassing cross-dressers, androgynous, and transgender people — declared an official gender category. That goal was realized in 2009 when the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that khwaja sara will be registered separately by the government. Since this ruling, the National Database Registration Authority has issued identity cards to around 4,000 trans people. By choice, Bindiya is not among them.
The transgender community in Pakistan has its own social network, operating under an informal ‘guru-chela’ — or master-apprentice — system. Trans people spot other trans people and in most cases rescue them from the wrath of their families by giving them shelter. This entails an arrangement in which the chela – apprentice – pledges allegiance to the guru who takes them under their wing, offers the trans person a place to live among people of their own gender in exchange for a small share in their earnings.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, in the days of the Mughal Empire, transvestites or eunuchs were trusted courtiers. Some were also tasked with training women in the art of performance including classical dance, poetry, and music. Over time, they became professional singers, dancers, and entertainers themselves. The Mughal empire fell, but the profession survived and people of the third gender in South Asia emerged as a separate class of people referred to as ‘Khawaja Sara’. There was (and to some extent still is) a popular belief that these Khawaja Saras – a broad term used for people with mixed gender identities and crossdressers – that trans people were troubled souls and were therefore closer to God.
This belief fueled the tradition of inviting them to happy occasions to celebrate with singing and dancing. A singing guru would arrive with all her dancing chelas in tow, upon invitation by the family on any happy occasion to extend their blessings and ward off bad omens. While every Khawaja Sara is transgendered, not every transgender person is a Khawaja Sara. The term Khawaja Sara implies making a living the traditional way – by singing and dancing.
“I wasn’t a great dancer but I was a stunner. This put my friends off who worked hard to learn dance,” Bindiya reminisces. “On the days when we didn’t have any engagements, we would practice by playing tapes of Bollywood films and dancing along to the songs.”
As the tradition of inviting Khawaja Sara to perform in celebrations waned, the community began slipping through the cracks. It was difficult for individuals to integrate into Pakistan’s socially conservative society and with no cohesive government response to their vulnerability, Khawaja Sara were left with no real means to support themselves. They began turning to begging and sex work.
In 2009, there was a sense that the fortunes of Khawaja Sara would improve. Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that members of the transgender community had the same basic rights as other men and women. The court ordered the government to update national identity cards with additional options under “sex.” Trans people could choose female transgender, male transgender or neutral transgender.
The question of just how many Pakistanis are transgender was answered, somewhat, after Pakistan recently conducted its first census in more than 18 years. According to provisional results, there are some 10 418 transgender people across Pakistan. That number varies wildly, however, from an estimate of 150 000 put forward by the National Aids Control Program. Regardless of the discrepancy, attempting to even count the number of Khawaja Sara is a big leap forward. In all previous census surveys before 2017, transgender people were either ignored or lumped together with people with disabilities.
In a series of follow-up rulings in 2011, the Supreme Court asserted equal rights and opportunities for the transgender community including education, healthcare, jobs and the right to vote. Government departments were instructed to add trans people to the list of underrepresented groups that qualified for reserve seats in elections. In receiving that provision, they joined women and people from minority faiths. This decision was also what led Bindiya to submit her nomination papers to contest election for a provincial assembly seat in her area.
Despite the court’s ruling and the changes that have come in its wake, the verdict has had little effect on how Pakistani society views the transgender community — through a lens of shame. There is also little understanding of the day-to-day challenges transgender people face. For example, if a trans person needs a new identity card, they need to submit a copy of one of their parent’s identity card. But most members of the trans community are estranged from their families.
Even though Bindiya helped hundreds of trans people acquire new identity cards, on paper she still remains Abdul Aziz by choice. She says while her family was supportive of her trans identity, she fears losing her claim to the family home. Bindiya’s father left his house to her instead of her older brother but inheritance laws in Pakistan allow for a larger share in property for men as compared to women. In cases where the original owner has died, the property can be divided up amongst heirs according to this 2:1 ratio. In Bindiya’s case, there are several complications because she was born male but identifies as female. It’s unclear what the consequences for her inheritance would be.
For Bindiya, there is an added peril: navigating government bureaucracy is a nightmare filled not only with requests for bribes but with bigotry too. “You know what happens in government offices. Why would I go through all the contempt and hassle, only to find that I end up losing my property in the process?” Bindiya asks.
A senior activist who works for the rights of male sex workers in Sindh province, Wajid Ali believes that the Supreme Court rulings were cosmetic measures. He pointed out that shame is so deeply ingrained in families that it even interfered with the census. In some cases, families did not want to lose respect by revealing to the census officials that a Khawaja Sara was related to them. “Look, you can pass all sorts of laws but nothing will change unless attitudes of people around us change,” he says.
Access to basic services, such as healthcare, remains difficult for Khawaja Sara all over the country. This was also one of the reasons Bindiya abandoned her spacious office in the busy part of metropolitan Karachi and chose to live in a two-bedroom house in a slum settlement called Jacob Lines located behind the largest public hospital in the city. Her home also doubles as an office for the support group she set up a few years ago.
Bindiya’s activism has allowed her to obtain some clout in a few public offices, one of which is the public hospital. “In case of any accident or violence against any member of my community I can assist them in receiving first aid or treatment at the hospital. Sometimes it is difficult for people to travel home directly after treatment so they come and stay with us till they are well enough to be on their own.”
One of the people who helps Bindiya in making the right contacts at hospital is Nisha. Born, and still officially identified, as Mohammad Kashif,
Nisha is the antithesis of Bindiya with her thin, lean looks, dark almond-shaped yes, and delicate mouth. Nisha’s calm voice is a welcome break from Bindiya’s boisterousness. Nisha says a trans person typically has only three choices: “singing and dancing, begging, or sex work.”
But Nisha chose a fourth. She completed her masters degree in political science from Karachi University in 2013 and is now one year away from completing a law degree from SM Law College. “I begged my way through four years of university. I know people who do sex work because they have to make ends meet, but it’s not my cup of tea,” she says.
After completing her master’s degree she spent a year in Malaysia working in a bar, but she didn’t enjoy it. So she came back and started law school. In her free time, Nisha tutors kids from her neighborhood. Though she is always pressed for cash, she takes no fee for tutoring. “A few of my students sat in the police exam and were recruited last year. When they see me on the road at times they greet me with a Sir, but I tell them not to, to save them embarrassment. But they don’t listen.”
At home Nisha dresses in trousers and a t-shirt. Anyone can mistake her for a man, until she speaks. She dressed as a woman all through her four years at Karachi University and was dressed as a woman when I met her. But in her life as a law student, she lives as a man. Nisha feels the law school is not as welcoming. “I was and still am at great ease at Karachi University. I went like this,” she says, pointing to her dupatta draped over her head and chest. “But the admission committee at SM Law College asked me to dress like a man. By now they too have discovered my gender and I have never made an effort to hide it, so it isn’t that bad.”
Nisha says illiteracy in the transgender community is a huge problem and plays a key part in their marginalization. Bindiya believes that out of her 50 apprentices, only 10 have completed high school while 10 more are literate. The rest can’t read or write. Bindiya herself had left school after the eighth grade.
Bindiya says after the 2011 Supreme Court ruling that opened the door to better employment opportunities, transgender friends were able to get jobs. But often the workplace was not ready for them. Managers and supervisors would often disrespect them or ask transgender women to dress as men. “How would a man feel if I told him to grow his hair and paint his nails for coming to work for me?” Bindiya asks.
She points to the irony of the 2011 ruling by saying that trans people can’t win. Jobs have theoretically become possible but they face bias and harassment in the workplace so many choose to beg instead. But begging is no longer seen as appropriate because, technically, trans people are entitled to equal opportunity for employment. “Now when my chelas go out to beg, people tell them to look for jobs. Look for jobs where? How?”
Despite the challenges, life is shifting, albeit slowly, for Pakistan’s transgender community. Changes to the law have helped significantly and activism is helping to push social change. Social media has made it easier for trans people to raise their voices together as a group. “Technology has given us a voice,” said Bindiya, who diligently maintains her Facebook page and gives hourly updates on her activities for her followers. “A lot of things have become easier for me, but maybe not for others I know. We are magnets for adversity. We need to win a lot more fights.”
This story was made possible by generous donations from 20 individuals to the Pakistan Shift project. For more information, or to contribute to coverage of important issues in Pakistan, please see the project page.