Saturday, April 27, 2013

Hijra Politics in Pakistan

In a country that is ruled by a mixture of both Anglo-Saxon colonial law and Islamic Sharia law, the lives of queer Pakistani people are different than what we see here in the United States. Being a lesbian, gay, or bisexual person is considered a taboo vice in parts of Pakistani community and there are practically no gay rights. In fact, same-sex sexual acts are illegal and the Pakistani Penal Code of 1860 punishes sodomy with a possible prison sentence. However, in many south asian nations, there is a concept of third gender--neither male nor female. Most often referred to as Hijras, these individuals have a long history dating back to court eunuchs of the Mughal era. Due to their position in precolonial Desi society, they are somewhat accepted or tolerated in many south asian communities. 

In fact, in 2009 the Supreme Court recognized them as a third gender, and simultaneously ordered they be issued with separate identity cards. In a nation battling enormous human rights abuses and chronic violence, this was hailed as a landmark decision. So what's the catch? Pakistan is a country where sexual relations outside of marriage are considered taboo and same-sex relations are illegal. Trans* people are tokenized as sex objects, often becoming the victims of assault and end up as beggars. This vibrant community of trans* people are subsequently stereotyped as dancers, beggars, and prostitutes. 

A recent article titled as Pakistan's Transgender Poltical Candidates Stake Claim In National Vote, author Khurram Shahzad shares the story of Sanam Faqeer, an independent trans* candidate for Pakistan's upcoming general elections. Rather than staying shunned in the shadows of the community-at-large, trans* people, most notably Faqeer, are transcending boundaries and striking into politics. 

Faqeer's story begins as the son of a radical prayer leader, who kept all his children at home to be taught only the Koran. After her father died, her brothers kicked her out of their house, due to her girlish tendencies, and she was taken under the wing of a prominent member of the trans* community. It was after this moment in her life that Faqeer would be able to embrace her womanhood. According to the article, " She changed her name, grew out her hair, dressed permanently as a woman and spent the next decade dancing and working as a prostitute. She became popular and earned good money, but her ambitions spread wider." 

She invested in the textile business and began supplying bed sheets and ladies clothes door-to-door. She began to make new contacts in the city, which propelled her to branch into welfare. She provided care to elderly eunuchs and registered her own charity in 2009. 

Today, Faqeer's two-room apartment serves as a home, an institute offering transgender people computer training and therefore the prospect of more respectable work, the headquarters of her charity and as a campaign hub. According to the article, all the transgender candidates are running as independents, limiting their chances of success. Because the political system in Pakistan is based heavilty on patronage, wealthy landlords and entrenched political parties are given a distinct advantage. 

While many posit that they could never support a trans* candidate or a  "sex client", Faqueer has large support from the poor and various trans* communities in Pakistan. "The main political parties have failed to lessen people's problems," she said, leaving her house to campaign against rising inflation and poverty. My fingers are crossed for her and the voice that is slowly, but surely, being heard from the trans* communities in Pakistan.

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