PAKISTAN: There is light under the lamp 

When the petition for looking into the plight of Khawja Saras1 (transsexual/transvestite) was filed at the supreme court of Pakistan, and reported in some of the more sensational Urdu print media, it was seen as yet another petition that may not have any substantial outcome, but it caught everyone by surprise when the, apex court actually issued a directive to the four provincial social welfare departments to research into all the matters that somehow relegated this one population into a non entity.

Once the directive was out, I in my capacity of someone who has been closely working in partnership with the community for past decade or more thought it necessary to understand the directive. Since, I was not a party to this matter meaning, neither did I file the petition and nor the directive had aggrieved me in any manner, therefore I could not legally get the copy of the directive/decision from the court.

I used my influence to somehow sneak into the so called copy branch of the, supreme court in Islamabad. The staff was kind but provided me the decision from another case that was filed against some of the Mullahs by the same lawyer, when I inspected the decision I told the head of the branch that a mistake has been made and I am provided with the wrong decision. The head too looked at the file and called one of his subordinates and admonished him with words that cannot be repeated here but what can be repeated is the reference he used to recall the correct file and that is as follows:

“I had asked you to get the file of those who are fond of getting penetrated and are at the bottom in the sexual act but you got me the file of those who penetrate and ride them”.

From that day onwards I am trying to understand the directive and how it is going to play a role in changing socialization processes and perceptions but before that one has to understand the complexities that are woven in this directive/decision.

The decision is in English and is mainly focused on looking into human rights violations of the populations of transgender and/or transvestites and finding ways to ensure equal rights and equal opportunities to these populations.

A very progressive directive from all perspectives as it also reflects the judicial activism that the Supreme Court has recently considered as a fundamental part of its role to provide justice for all.

However, there are some aspects of this decision that needs to be understood from the context of the beneficiaries.

The decision is to look into the matters of transgender and transvestites. In Urdu2 the two terms are being translated as Khawja Saras but what needs to be understood is that the specific institution of Khawja Saras does not exist anymore. It ended somewhere in 19th century when the patronage of this institution seized to exist because of the end of nobility in what is now India3 .

The terms that are used to define behavior manifestations in male that do not conform to his biological make up are terms that are mostly derogatory and fall short of clearly defining the different identities that exists within this specific population.

For the first time the larger society is confronted with the reality that it had swept under the carpet for the longest period of time, it is trying to be sensitive and has chosen the most “civilized and sophisticated” term but unfortunately it does not work.

It does not work on many counts and some of main ones are:

  • It is a requirement for a Khawja Sara to be castrated, whereas, most of the existing population of the male who manifest feminine behavior and have a desire to be like a woman are not castrated.
  • Secondly, the institution that created spaces for such population does not exist any more.
  • Thirdly, the elements of sanctity and respectability inherent in the institution of Khawja Sara are not there any more

However, what is out there currently is a population that has some of the following features amongst many other:

1. The population may or may not be emasculated4 .
2. The spaces that exist are the households of Gurus. These households are supported by a code of ethics that the community/population has evolved for itself. No outside patronage is available to safeguard the interest of these households.
3. The population has been marginalized and ridiculed to the extent that they have internalized their own marginalization and consider themselves as dysfunctional and a burden on the mainstream society.

Any form of activism for the betterment and uplift of the community has to be designed using this as a backdrop. First of all one has to understand that there are different identities within this larger population and the English term transvestite may be the only term that may encapsulate some of the characteristics that describes the Zenana5 identity but not all as the zenana identity has lot more than just being interested in cross dressing or manifesting female behavior.

What are Zenanas?

Zenanas describe themselves as individuals who are born with a body of men but with “rooh” (literally meaning spirit) of women. The realization of being different hits any such child very early and generally he desires and prefers to keep a female demeanor than a male one. Initially all remains well till the child is reaching the adolescence; this is when the male in the household get nervous and start exerting both mental and physical pressure upon this child to conform to his biological form, which for this child is difficult to understand.

In search of his identity this child now starts a very painful journey, where he is alone and all sorts of abuse and deception is waiting for him. The child is harassed and ridiculed all the way till he finds solace in one of the zenana Guru’s household. How the child gets there? is something that can be detailed in another article and at another point but what needs to be understood here is that no matter how gruesome the treatment is at the Gurus house, this remains the only family structure for him as his own family has disowned him and do not want to have anything to do with him. The Guru is the mother, the father, the brother and the sister and most of all this is the only space where this child has the freedom to be what he wants to be. This child is not willing to trade this freedom for anything in the world6 .

How does the so called transvestites or in Pakistani context Zenana community benefits from this decision/directive?

For right now there are many challenges that the, supreme court of Pakistan may have in implementation of this directive and some of them are as follows:

1. Provision of an alternate system of support if the Guru-Chella (disciple) relationship is abusive:

The petition that was presented before the court briefly touched upon the evils of the Guru-Chella relationship. The description of this relationship in the petition and what follows projects it as one of the most exploitative and abusive situation equating it to a form of slavery.

As much as it may be true, the benefits of the relationship should not be forgotten. The foremost thing about this relationship is that it has built in checks and balances that are provided by the zenana code of ethics and any diversion from it is heavily penalized. Therefore, there are monitoring mechanisms that are in place for checking out accesses. How effectively those mechanisms are used? I would say generally more than the monitoring mechanisms used in the main stream society to check the accesses within. Thus, if courts want to do away with the Guru-Chella relationship then, it would have to provide an alternate support system which is better than the existing and has all the safety valves in place, or through a sensitized and trained social welfare department make sure that the child remains safe at his biological home and the family understands this child’s special needs.

2. Equal opportunities translates into equal rights:

From the very day that the directive/decision has been made public, there is a sudden surge of zenanas on different talk shows on most private and state owned television channels. Zenanas are suddenly part of exotic and everybody is trying to get on the bandwagon of exploration. Well meaning moderators are coming up with suggestions for a “better and respectful life” and these both aspects of such a life are once again defined by the moderators. Mostly one gets to hear the following:

“Why do you not get into stitching clothes or cooking or get hired as household help. You have such good skills. Why do you have to humiliate yourselves by dancing and getting tease?”

Why are the moderators not offering choices such as access to education, access to information and access to wide variety of choices that are there for others in the society? Equal rights generally do not exist in a vacuum. Equal opportunities have to be provided for people to enjoy and sustain equal rights.

3. The threat of Section 377 Pakistan Penal Code (PPC):

The Pakistan Penal Code criminalizes sodomy. Section 377 clearly states that any such act is un-natural offence and puts it in the same category as bestiality. What is the significance of Section 377 in this matter? The reason that this section is mentioned here is that most of the zenanas do not go through surgical process and remain men as per biological definition, however, since they are women from within and have the similar desires as a sexual being. They are attracted to other male for sexual gratification. This brings the zenanas on the radar of section 377 of Pakistan Penal Code, and makes their sexual life punishable.

In the end, one may say that there is limited utility of this directive for the beneficiary but it is definitely a step in the right direction. However, if the courts really wants to ensure equal rights for this one population then it will have to address some of these very few of the many irritants and then my hope is that next time when I sneak into the copy branch of the Supreme court, I would hear a reference to the case that would reflect a more humane understanding of the matters and I would not walk out cynically saying a famous Urdu saying which is translated as under:

“Darkness under the lamp!”

Tahir Khilji lives in Lahore and is co founder of Vision, an organization that works to facilitate sexually and religiously marginalized groups and populations to realize their strengths and understand mechanisms that would enable them to strive for their basic rights.


1 Khawja Sara is an Urdu word used for eunuch, if one was to look at the dictionary meaning of eunuch, it is described as a man or a boy whose testicles has been removed or do not function. In South Asia such individuals were used by emperors to guard their harems as they posed no threat to the chastity of women of the noble descent. The documentation of 14th and 15th century history of India shows plenty of evidence of the eunuch having a prime place in the palace politics and beyond.
2 Urdu is the national language of Pakistan and spoken widely in all four provinces of the country along with the provincial languages of each province. Urdu is a mixture of Persian, Sanskrit and Arabic.
3 The Invisibles: A tale of Eunuchs of India, by Zia Jaffery, Pantheon Books, New York, USA. 1998
4 Generally the entire male genitalia are removed through a surgical process.
5 Zenanas define themselves as women trapped in men’s body. They may or may not dress up like a woman but the gestures very pronouncedly suggest feminine behavior. Sometimes in the province of Punjab, Pakistan zenanas also refer to themselves as Moorats (a lifeless statue). In Bangladesh and India, zenanas are called kothis.
6 These insights are gathered from Vision’s own records of researches and conversations with the zenana population.

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Document Type : Forwarded Article
Document ID : AHRC-FAT-038-2009
Countries : Pakistan,