In a Muslim shrine in Lahore’s ancient quarter, men and women pray around the tomb of a local saint. They hurl garlands and flower petals toward the tomb, each from their own, gender-segregated side: men from the left, women from the right.
On each side, transgender women lead the believers in song.
Among the men, they sing flamenco-style laments. A teenage trans woman leads the women. They struggle to keep up with her urgent chants in praise of the Prophet Muhammad’s family.
Across Pakistan, transgender women are a fixture in these Sufi shrines, which tend to be more tolerant than other religious sites. Inside these holy sites, they are revered as belonging to a sacred third gender — a legacy of ancient South Asian traditions that have embraced gender fluidity.
That reverence has all but disappeared outside the shrines.
For more than a century, transgender women were pushed to the margins. South Asia’s British colonial rulers outlawed their communities. In Pakistan (as in India), discrimination has continued, and transgender women frequently resort to begging and sex work to support themselves. They are often targeted for violence.
“In 70 years, Pakistan has bought transgenders to a position where they have no rights and no respect,” says Ashi, a 50-year-old trans woman in Lahore. “We are trying to regain our status in society.”
Pakistanis call transgender women plenty of names, most of them derisive. Community activists have come to prefer the term khawaja sira — the title given to the chief eunuch of the Mughal court, the Islamic empire that, at its peak in the 17th century, dominated much of the Indian subcontinent.
Reclaiming a name is just one way a growing movement for transgender rights is asserting itself in Pakistan. It has succeeded by appealing to a shared cultural and religious background with mainstream Pakistanis, and won sympathy and backing from important human rights activists, legislators and even the government’s federal ombudsman.
For liberal Pakistanis, supporting transgender issues is shorthand for being progressive. And the Pakistani government, when not distracted by political intrigue, sees progress on transgender issues as a way of demonstrating that the country is making positive moves on human rights.
Activists for this small, marginalized community have scored important victories over the past decade — including the right to inherit property, be counted in the census and obtain ID cards listing them as third gender.
A younger generation is also redefining what being transgender in Pakistan means. In the past year, they’ve shown off a crop of firsts: the first model, first doctor, first playwright.
Now, the Parliament is considering a bill that could fundamentally transform their place in Pakistan by guaranteeing basic rights. Unlikely allies are pushing the bill: members of an ultra-conservative Islamic party that are convinced khawaja siras have a place in Islam.
‘Girl, this is our destiny’
In addition to the Islamic party, the movement for transgender rights encompasses a cacophony of activists, aid groups, human rights organizations and local leaders, all jostling for influence.
At the heart of it are trans women like Ashi. Her life story echoes the experiences of many khawaja siras in today’s Pakistan.
She was born male in the 1960s in rural Pakistan, between two sisters and a brother. “But I was neither sister nor brother,” she says. (Like many khawaja siras, Ashi uses one name — the one she chose when she was initiated into the community.)
When she was in the second grade, her father caught her dancing in her sister’s clothes and flew into a rage. Her mother begged her to flee – her father, ashamed of her girlish ways, was planning to kill her.
She rode a bus to town, where she saw a troupe of transgender women dancing in a circus. She thought they were beautiful, and stayed to watch.
“They recognized me,” she says, “and invited me to be with them.”
An older trans woman took her in.
“She treated me like her own child. She protected me. She fed me on time. I missed my parents, so she’d hug me and dote on me and say: ‘Girl, this is our destiny,'” Ashi recalls. “‘As time passes, you’ll understand.’ ”
That woman became Ashi’s guru — a mentor. Ashi became a “chela” – an initiate. She has worked her way up, and is now a guru with dozens of chelas.
Ashi now uses this traditional structure to propel her community forward, working with younger trans women to inform them of their rights, help them with health concerns, bail them out of police detention — in general, to act like a godmother to those who often have no other family.
Nargis and Shazia
On a recent day, Ashi heads to a tidy slum in central Lahore. She climbs a winding staircase to a rooftop flat — a deira, an apartment that shelters trans women. It’s easy to spot other deiras down the narrow alley: Transgender women lean over the balconies, smoking.
Ashi seats herself on the floor with two trans women, Nargis and Shazia, both in their late-20s. They chain-smoke, gossip and swap makeup in battered tin boxes.
Shazia is Nargis’ guru, but they beg together to get by. Both are illiterate. Nargis fled her previous guru, who she says once tied her to a tree, smeared honey on her and left her for the ants because she refused an order to have sex with a client.
Ashi asks, have the women had HIV tests lately? Khawaja siras are considered an at-risk group. She reminds them there are free tests at a Lahore community center, the Khawaja Sira Society, where she’s an outreach coordinator. They tell her they’ve both been tested recently.
Nargis tells Ashi the police recently held her after a “function” — a dance performance at all-male parties that are sometimes followed by sex work.
Ashi nods – she says Nargis doesn’t know that she called her police contacts that evening to get her released.
Nargis and Shazia prepare to go begging. Nargis has bleached her skin pale and smears on white foundation. She says people give more if you look white.
She and Shazia leap into a rickshaw and ride to a traffic intersection at an upscale neighborhood.
Nargis leans into cars: “I will pray for you from my heart! Give me 10 or 20, cutie!”
Most motorists hand over change. Many believe khawaja siras have the power to bless and curse humans — one of the residual ways they are seen as sacred outside the shrines.
On a good day, Nargis earns about $3.
Transgender women are often the victims of violent crimes, especially rape, activists say. That vulnerability to abuse partly triggered their activism.
About a decade ago, gurus began protesting outside police stations across the country after authorities refused to investigate murders of khawaja siras. Simultaneously, groups focusing on HIV/AIDS awareness and treatment began targeting services to them as a high-risk group.
The interaction with aid groups encouraged some trans women to form and lead their own organizations, mentored by local human rights and women’s groups.
Ashi is now paid to be a community organizer, but it’s what she’s always done.
On a recent day, Ashi arranges a demonstration to condemn Myanmar’s violent crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. Some two dozen khawaja siras turn up at a traffic circle, holding signs.
A motorist in an SUV slows down to stare. Men riding on a donkey cart laugh and point. Journalists snap photos.
“Down with the Myanmar government!” Ashi cries.
Ashi cares about the fate of other Muslims. But it’s also a savvy move: She’s trying to reframe how Pakistanis see her community: as concerned citizens, good Muslims, not as outsiders to be derided.
Other activists have worked to reframe the very stature of khawaja siras. Throughout 2017, they lobbied parliamentarians to support an ambitious bill that ensures legal rights including to education and medical care. The bill provides a quota for government jobs and would criminalize discrimination.
In August, the bill’s sponsor, Naeema Kishwar Khan, presented the legislation, known as the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2017, to Parliament.
Kishwar is no political progressive. She wears a blue hijab and matching face veil, and belongs to the hardline religious party Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazlur Rehman Group.
“Islam clearly says there are rights for all creation,” she says. “[Transgender women] should be given rights, like men and women have been given rights.”
There is no mention in the bill of marriage. Kishwar says a transgender woman marrying a man is still, physically, a homosexual act, and therefore against Islam.
But marriage rights aren’t important right now, Ashi says. She and other khawaja siras say they must distance themselves from the gay and lesbian community — widely persecuted in Pakistan — if they are to make any political strides.
A form of slavery?
South Asian and Iranian Muslims have traditionally been sympathetic to transgender women. Their visibility likely helps, as does their adherence to devotional Islam.
Kishwar’s political party has another reason for supporting the bill. Giving opportunities to trans women, she argues, will keep them away from “moral corruption” – begging, sex work and dancing.
Whether or not that’s true, some say the whole guru-chela system should be dismantled. They argue it is a form of slavery.
One night in Lahore, we visited a deira run by Shabnam, 35, a tall, illiterate trans woman. Every few months, she saves $20 to visit her mother across the country. Her father and siblings haven’t spoken to her since they threw her out when she was in primary school.
She recently applied for a transgender ID, and once she has it, she dreams of attending a cricket match. Pakistanis can only buy tickets with an ID card.
In Shabnam’s deira, three or four women smoke joints but are restless. They push us into a room, plug their phones into speakers and take turns dancing. They jump, spin and shimmy in a seductive, sexy performance.
Shabnam sits in a corner, keeping an eye on one of the dancers wearing a yellow outfit. Shabnam purchased her from another guru for $500 a few months ago. Instead of the guru initiating the young girl into the community, she bartered her for cash.
Shabnam earns a cut of the young woman’s earnings from dancing, begging and sex work.
She shrugs when I ask her about purchasing another person.
“I have to think of the future,” she says.
Shabnam says she already has five chelas and hopes to have more.
‘A lucky transgender’
It’s unclear how widespread the guru-chela system of initiation is. Many khawaja sira activists insist more trans women have been saved than harmed by it, though other transgender activists disagree.
Reform may come from laws like the one under consideration in Parliament. But some small changes are already occurring at the personal level.
Decades after Ashi left her parents’ home, her father and mother pleaded for forgiveness. She forgave them and cared for her father until he died.
“I wanted him to recognize and accept me,” she says. “My biggest wish was that he should consider me as his own.” She feels satisfied now that he did.
These days, Ashi cares for her mother in her basement flat. Ashi considers herself the perfect child: strong like a son, caring like a daughter. While she makes breakfast for her mother, a local boy comes by for his Quran lessons. She reads out verses and he diligently repeats them.
This is Ashi’s dream: to be seen as the devout Muslim that she is, worthy of sharing her knowledge.
“I teach Quran. I have a job,” she says. “I consider myself a lucky transgender.”
Freelance producer Sara Farid and NPR Islamabad bureau assistant Abdul Sattar contributed to this story.