Alisha, a transgender woman, was shot multiple times and fought for her life in the hallways of a hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan in May. As she lay dying, patients and staff teased her distraught friends and delayed treating her. They asked Alisha how much she charged for dancing.
Her death and the hospital’s misconduct sparked outrage across Pakistani media. But it was too little too late.
The trans community in Pakistan is caught in the middle of a massive storm: while gay people in the country are becoming more visible, especially online, transgender Pakistanis are still suffering in the dark. Often they’re lumped in with the rest of the LGBT community as if they face the same persecution.
Western media is part of the problem — VICE’s “Being LGBT in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan” and the BBC’s “How Gay is Pakistan” assume both the gay and trans communities in Pakistan are besieged in the same way. They paint extremist Islamist ideology as the main villain of the story.
This pre-packaged narrative carefully selects certain queer voices above others, while fitting everything neatly into a box of Western concepts. As Zulfikar Ali Bhutto asks in a recent article for Tanqeed, “How can we find a Pakistani-ness in discussions on homosexuality and sexual identity that have been seen and explained through a Western lens for decades?”
Kajal spoke with Saadat Munir about this. Munir is a founder and curator of the Aks Film, Art and Dialogue Festival for Minorities and co-director, with Saad Khan, of the 2013 documentary Chuppan Chupai.
Chuppan Chupai follows four queer individuals: the prominent khwaja sira, or third gender, activist Neeli, the sweet and demure wedding performer Waseem, the plucky trans activist Kami, and the transitioning but conflicted law student Jenny.
The documentary approaches the telling of their stories in a way that is raw and refreshingly devoid of a particular narrative agenda. This is neither a narrative of Pride and defiance, nor one of pure oppression and suffering.
The four leads come from different classes, different cultural backgrounds, and have their own unique ways of making sense of their sexualities. They struggle through self-loathing and religious fear as much as they find self-acceptance, exploration, and love.
Munir reflected on these aspects of the documentary, and queer life in Pakistan, in depth over our conversation, which has been edited for clarity.
Kajal: To what degree class is a divider in this underground culture? For instance, we see Kami dancing at the birthday party of one of Neeli’s proteges at the beginning of the film, but throughout she and Jenny both also refer to “modern LGBT” or “modern transgenders” and differentiate them from the khwaja sira community, who are deemed lowest of the low because they beg.
Munir: Socio-economic factors for sure play major roles and are the reason for this diversity in the Queer/Trans community in Pakistan. Neeli lives a traditional khwaja sira’s life. She was once abandoned by her family, but when she became an earning source for them, they started connecting with her but still kept her out of the family. Even today, she can go see them from time to time but is never allowed to stay overnight. It’s a very common pattern for many traditional khwaja siras in Pakistan.
Waseem also belongs to a family that accepted or tolerated him for the reason of him being a source of income but were not comfortable him being upfront about his true self. Waseem, in fact, worked as dancing boy since his childhood at weddings and we met him when he had almost reached the end of his career due to his age being less attractive for men at the parties.
How do migration and urban spaces factor into queer life? Some of your interviewees come to Karachi and Lahore from places sometimes deemed ‘provincial’ or ‘backward.’ I imagine they must have struggled to find their most comfortable place, not only as a queer individual, but as a person from ‘somewhere else,’ having to both become part of a city and part of that city’s queer subcultures.
Very interesting point. I’m sort of working on my next doc project on minorities within subcultures, and you are absolutely right about the issues and rejections, and in some cases easier assimilation, being migrant in the urban queer community. In Sid [Kami’s boyfriend] and Jenny’s case I don’t think it’s a matter of rural vs. urban status, but it is more of a class thing, and somehow the time cap of their migration too. Sid, being Chitrali but almost living in Karachi all his life, makes him Chitrali minority in Karachi. Both Sid and Jenny, being from the middle class [and] being slightly privileged, works better for them.
By the by Kami was also born in Bahawal Nagar, Punjab, and her family moved to Karachi for a better life. So, being middle-class and having a certain level of educational background, they definitely meet different attributes of acceptance and tolerance. I have often seen among elite (not always urbanized) gay friends them being very specific about education while looking for hook ups on Grindr or other platforms. It is also rare to see gay couples from different classes.
For Neeli, the case may have been different — choosing the life of khwaja sira you actually sign up for the lowest of the class system. In fact, khwaja siras are slightly more tolerated in small towns and villages but in urban cities being khwaja sira, you have to stick your own clan and there is not much acceptance.
The main issues trans people come across in urbanized populations are of accessibility. While I was doing my festival in Pakistan, I couldn’t even find a hotel where they allowed transgender guests. I had my khwaja sira friends on a visit to my hotel and they literally asked me to meet them in the lobby because they don’t allow “these people” in the rooms, so it’s a minor example for you to imagine how is their life in cities.
There is a scene in which Kami reads out a flyer of a right-wing group that condemns an American consulate event on LGBT rights and calls for a war on LGBT people. What do you think the presence of an international, but West-associated, ‘gay rights as human rights’ discourse has done to LGBT rights work in Pakistan? I am also thinking of how Kami asserts that there is no concept of LGBT in Pakistan.
Well, I kind of agree with Kami when it comes to LGBT in the whole world, these are very postcolonial terms and somehow box humans into different categories. If khwaja siras have been visible in Pakistani culture, if we go a few hundred years back same sex relationships were not even looked down upon as well, until we were colonized and then criminalized for being different or looking different in public.
This is what we do through our Aks film art and dialogue festival: we try to create dialogue on identity, ethnicities and sexual diversity rather than just being boxed as LGBT or rainbows. Americans for sure made a wrong move by celebrating gay pride in Pakistan. Even to date, when we wanted to work with British and American embassies in Pakistan for our festival, they wanted us to limit ourselves to LGBT spectrum which culturally and politically do not fit into major part of Pakistani queer community — at least not the working class or lower middle class Pakistan. There is an existing patterned LGBT community in bigger cities of Pakistan.
Those are people with privileges or so called elites, and they are no different to gay men in LA or London West End. Another issue with LGBT, is that it’s a term that mostly is associated with the cis-gender population. Even though there is a T, it’s not exactly transgender representative all over the world.
So overall I think this LGBT move or any other foreign agenda won’t fit into any country unless you employ the local ethnography.
You’ve said, “Generally Pakistanis, I feel, are okay with gender ambiguity because it’s not an alien thing for them. It’s been around for ages. I’ve had conversations with rickshawalas in Lahore and several Pakistanis with zero formal education about same sex relations etc. and I’ve found them to have a very tolerant point of view. They are not the ones with the aggressive outlook about these things.” Would you say it’s the middle class that is more responsible for perpetuating discriminatory attitudes?
Yes, it won’t be wrong to say that the middle class has a lot to do with discrimination. One major reason could be insecurity, as this class always struggles for their own upgrade and they would not appreciate anything which is associated with a lower class than their own. When we had our screenings at a university, I was shockingly surprised when students clapped when Jenny talks about how no religion accepts gender diversity, and during Q&A many of them claimed that Kami and Sid’s same-sex relationship is something not in Pakistani culture and that they must have been inspired by the West.
So, the middle class have some education and some sort of access to information, but like the majority of Western middle classes, they choose to buy into the information and education that is less challenging. I think another thing that may engender intolerance is a mix of [capitalism] and Islamization, which is a pretty crazy mix.
The case with people from lower-middle class or with lesser privileges, at least in Pakistan, is often they tend to follow old school traditional Islam with the culture of shrines and Sufism. And there is a lot of acceptance and also interactions with at least the khwaja sira community, as they tend to be around shrines and have more accessibility to the local population’s houses when they go around for earning in Toli (blessing the newborns). I think there is also a relaxed attitude towards same-sex relationships as long we don’t box them as ‘gay’ or try to demonize them otherwise.
To be honest, I was very happy with the old school mindset of South Asians where the transgender community was an unsolved mystery and were somehow tolerated, and even celebrated in certain classes. This new curiosity trend may kill the indigenous culture of khwaja siras, and they’ll be lost in between the so called Western LGBT world and the troubled Islamic world in Pakistan.