The music video is set to a catchy tune and starts out with two transgender women in bejeweled pink and red outfits, primping before a mirror. But it soon turns dark. They get disapproving stares in the marketplace and outside a mosque. And while they dance for cash at a bachelor party, the guests rough them up.
Although the video “Madam” is fictional, it features two real-life Pakistani transgender women, Lucky Khan and Nirmal Chaudry. And it sheds light on the reality that transgender people in the country face. Many are shunned by family, educators and employers. And some must turn to dancing, begging and prostitution for work.
But if “Madam” sketches out grim scenes of how transgender women can suffer in Pakistan, the visibility it offers signals another step forward for Pakistan’s transgender community, which has spent years steadily notching small victories. Most recently, on July 14, a task force formed by the national ombudsman submitted two bills before the parliament which would expand protections for transgender Pakistanis. And last month, Pakistan issued its first gender-neutral passport.
Jimmy Khan, the Pakistani singer and songwriter behind “Madam,” wanted to start a conversation. The caption for the video notes that it’s “a reflection of how cruelly we as a society treat the transgender community.” And the title of the video encourages viewers to “Watch. Absorb. Reflect. Change.”
“There is a very strong message behind this video,” says Jannat Ali, a transgender activist in Pakistan. The day portrayed in “Madam” is three-dimensional, she says, involving harassment, tenderness and fun. It also “shows they try to support each other [as if they were] like relatives, like sisters, like family.”
Saadat Munir is a Pakistani filmmaker and activist based in Denmark who curates the Aks International Minorities Festival, an annual film and art event focused on “sexual minorities” that takes place in Pakistan, Denmark and the U.K. He hopes the video encourages the transgender community’s activism — and could trigger support for the bills before parliament. “That is what is needed — we want to create some kind of sympathy,” he says.
So far, the video has over 200,000 views on Facebook and a couple thousand views on YouTube.
Many responses are positive, like Farhana Abid’s on Facebook: “How much we are insulting humans and wasting their potential. Culture needs to change. Law must give them shelter. Third gender rights must be provided.”
Even though Pakistan is a conservative Muslim country with a politically powerful religious right wing, activists have been able to expand rights for transgender people. It helps that transgender women are embedded in South Asian culture, seen as occupying a mystical place between men and women, says Fatimah Ihsan, assistant professor of gender studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.
They are called “hijras” — from the word “to migrate.” It comes from “the idea of migrating between the body, from one gender to another,” Ihsan says.
It also helps their cause that transgender women can be as Muslim as the average Pakistani. They undertake the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, or Hajj, and when a member of their community dies, they read chapters of the Quran, like any traditional Muslim.
And what happens in Pakistan has outsize influence. It is one of the world’s most populous Muslim countries and strongly defines itself by its Islamic identity. Change here — including attitudes about transgender people — can reverberate around the Islamic world.
Munir, the filmmaker, says he is optimistic. “Pakistan,” he says, “is on the verge.”