Urban Pakistan assaults your senses: tangles of traffic, Pakistani pop competing with the mosque’s call to prayer, pungent spices in the steamy air. And then there are the transvestites.
At traffic lights, you see people draped in elegant pink and red clothing, with sparkling makeup. They tap their painted fingernails on your car window, asking for money. And that’s when you notice the stubble on their chins.
“Begging here in traffic is just a part-time job,” says 32-year-old Mina Mehvish. “I really want to be a dancer.”
Mehvish is a hijra, the South Asian term for transgender women, who trace their presence back to at least the 16th century, when eunuchs served as entertainers and guards in Mogul courts. The word means “leaving one’s own tribe” — or in this case, gender group — in several Asian and Middle Eastern languages.
In Pakistan, transgender women have long been considered good luck for both newborns and newlyweds — and perform both at baby showers and weddings. Despite this, they continue to face discrimination in this otherwise conservative Muslim country.
This year, hijras won a key legal battle to have a third gender option on national ID cards. About 50,000 Pakistanis are classified as hijras like Mehvish. The category includes self-reported transgender men and women, as well as transvestites, hermaphrodites and eunuchs.
“I’m neither a man nor a woman,” Mehvish says. “We cannot marry, we cannot produce children. So this is how we lead our lives. We are neither.”
Mehvish was born male, but now identifies as a female — and not as a gay, which she considers a sin in Islam.
“I just have a boyfriend, I don’t have a girlfriend. So I’m not homosexual,” she says.
Gender studies professor Fatimah Ihsan says Pakistanis have more fluid gender identities than you might expect. Part of that, she says, is the segregation of men and women — which creates very close same-sex friendships. Men hold hands in the street.
“A lot of sort of homoeroticism, you’ll see, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll have a same-sex relationship. It’s just part of our culture,” Ihsan says. “In the West, I think everything has been boxed so strictly.”
Even so, serious discrimination against hijras exists — for example, stories of rape by police who are supposed to protect them. But their status is rising slowly.
Last year, the highest-grossing Pakistani film was Bol, which means “speak out” in Urdu. The villain is a father who murders his son, for wanting to wear women’s clothes.
Almas Bobby, the leader of Pakistan’s transgender community, made a cameo in the film.
“When I saw lots of discrimination, then I decided to do something for my community. Because there was no platform. They feel it’s an embarrassing, sensitive topic,” she says.
Bobby took the ID card battle to Pakistan’s Supreme Court and won. She also organized a recent protest — transgender women against the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The political visibility has helped, she says.
“Now people realize that we are God’s creation, and we have our rights. God sent us — but not in tribal areas,” she says, laughing.
There are some conservative neighborhoods where hijras are not welcome. In Rawalpindi, just outside Islamabad, down a dark alley across from a mosque, a group of transgender wedding singers rehearse in secret.
While having her makeup done, a 22-year-old performer who goes by the single name Sameeha says she once dreamed of being a doctor. But she came out as a hijra as a teen, and faced so much discrimination that she quit school.
“There are allegations that we’re involved in sex and drugs, but we are god-fearing people,” she says. “Why don’t people worry about the real problems in society, instead of us?”