Essay on Transgender Persons

The Human Rights Campaign defines transgender as “an umbrella term that describes people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth” (HRC, 2018). Susan Stryker further explains stating that transgender refers “to people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, people who cross over (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain that gender” (Stryker, 2017, p. 1); the meanings of trans, according to Stryker are still under construction (1). Transgender is not a new concept, but the growing spectrum of gender interrupts present cultural norms. However, gender diversity has existed for a long time throughout human history, from the two-spirit people of Native American culture to the hijras of India. For this assignment, I chose to focus on hijras in Pakistan. The historical identity of hijras in Pakistan presents an interesting global conversation about the concept of gender in the context of where gender diversity is today and where it is headed. In 1930, Sir Muhammad Iqbal, president of the All Indian Muslim League, proposed a free and independent Muslim state from British India of what would later be known as Pakistan (Ziring and Burki, 2019). By 1947, the British Parliament passed the Indian Independence Act separating India and Pakistan—millions of religious persecuted Muslims fled to East and West Pakistan, while Hindus fled to India. Although Pakistan gained independence, it retained the Indian Penal Code (now the Pakistan Penal Code), Section 377, which “categorizes homosexuality under unnatural offenses and criminalizes anal intercourse between men with imprisonment for life, or for any term of not less than 10 years” (Alizai, Doneys & Doane, 2016, p. 1235). Further, the Pakistan Penal Code “imposes sanctions against emasculation and describes that the destruction or permanent damage of the functional capacity of any organ of the body by another person is punished with imprisonment of up to 10 years” (Alizai et al, 2016). Despite the punishment, homosexuality and gender non-conformity continue today in Pakistani society in addition to new rights and social recognition. After some policemen reportedly tortured and raped a group of hijras, the Pakistan Supreme Court “ordered fair behavior with hijras and to create employment opportunities” (Jami and Kamal, 2015, p. 153). From 2009 – 2012, the Supreme Court officially recognized third gender persons, hijras, who, under the 1973 Constitution, are guaranteed protections entitled to every citizen.

Hijras are found in communities across the Indian subcontinent including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Hijra is a hypernym of various forms of “gender deviances” including, Khusras (hermaphrodites), Zananas (cross-dressers), and Narbans (castrated men) (Abdullah, Basharat, Kamal, Sattar, Hassan, Jan, Shafqat, 2012). Serena Nanda culturally defined hijra as “neither man nor woman, and both man and woman” (Nanda, 2014, p. 27). Although hijra is comparatively a trans person in Western culture, women “who wear male clothes or try to attain male identity” are not categorically hijra (Jami and Kamal, 2015, p. 152). Hijras sometimes undergo a rite called “nirvan” or “rebirth” where their genitals are removed (Alizai, Doneys & Doane, 2016, p. 1215).

Before British colonialism and its criminalization and influence on gender practices, and despite India’s current emphasis on binary gender constructions, Hinduism acknowledged different variations of gender, celebrating “the idea that the universe is boundlessly various, and…that all possibilities may exist without excluding each other” (Nanda, 2014, p. 28). Hijras were once celebrated and revered—they entertained at marriages, and birthing ceremonies, and in return, bridal couples would pay them in “money, sweets, and cloth” (28). Hijras adopt feminine names, wear women’s clothing, make-up, and accessories; they imitate women’s walk, gestures, facial expressions, language; and they seek “normal” men as sexual partners.

In Pakistan, the traditional role of a hijra included singing, dancing, and “seeking wadhais [alms] at the birth of male child and wedding ceremony for sons” (Jami and Kamal, 2015, p. 153). Muslim hijras date back to eunuchs and were common throughout the royal courts of Muslim rulers. They were highly valuable and occupied administrative roles and political advisors; they were courtesans, warriors and guardians of the harem” (Alizai, Doneys & Doane, 2016, p. 1215). The British, however, removed hijras from their stately positions by launching moral and political campaigns against them and were ultimately criminalized under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Hijras from there out were considered “immoral and unworthy” which left them without fundamental human rights.

Remnants of the past left Pakistani society to believe in male and female gender binary and that anything beyond that is considered taboo, leading to the deterioration of the traditional hijra role (Hassan Bin Usman Shah, 2018). Additionally, the “Western medicalized concept of transgender” influences societies beliefs and understandings of gender as well (Jami and Kamal, 2015, p. 153). Hijras, therefore, tend to be excluded and are unable to participate in mainstream society. They are stigmatized and some discontinue their education and have difficulties finding legitimate work, or housing. Consequently, they may be unable to independently maintain their livelihood due to harassment and discrimination. Most hijras are often rejected by friends and family. When this occurs, they isolate themselves into communities of other hijras—or chelas (followers)—in new family-like structures called gharanas (houses). Gharanas are headed by gurus (leaders) who train chelas how to dance, sing, and even force them into sex work in order to earn money; gurus manage any earned income. The consequences of social exclusions force hijras into risky and dangerous conditions such as sex work; sex work often subjects hijras to sexual harassment and rape.

“Gender is governed to confirm a stereotypical form of patriarchy” that defines the margins for women and men (Saeed, Mughal & Farooq, 2017, p. 1054). The hijra community in Pakistan is evidence that gender is flexible, but conservative ideas and beliefs about gender are not simply so. Traditional gender practices in Pakistani society was disrupted through religious beliefs and moral values making it possible to ultimately marginalize hijras in it’s social and cultural structure. Religious members tend to hold fear of the unknown and concerns about their morality and therefore may consider sexual minorities as deviant. Dress and gender roles in Islam are strict, cross-dressing, “castration for abstaining from marrying,” sodomy, and homosexuality is strongly discouraged; additionally, because men in Pakistani society “undergo more sex-typed upbringing” they tend to stick to more traditional gender roles and are “more disturbed” when traditional gender roles are violated (Jami and Kamal, 2015, p. 154-5).

In 2013, hijras participated for the first time in politics as candidates and voters in general elections. Pakistan’s parliament, under the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, allows third gender persons have their chosen identities “recognized on official documents, including national IDs, passports, and driver’s licenses” (Ingber, 2018). Ingber further stated that gay and lesbian rights are not addressed in the bill, “nor are penalties for discrimination outlined in the act” (Ingber, 2018). Although hijras still face social difficulties, gradually, they are being woven back into the cultural fabric through attempts at “mainstreaming” them in television dramas and talk shows; efforts at normalizing hijras is proving to be difficult due to past and current values on gender.

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