Pakistan’s transgender women, long marginalized, mobilize for rights


Transgender women beg motorists for money at a busy intersection in Lahore. PHOTO/Diaa Hadid/NPR

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.”

Asserting rights

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.

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