This blog originally appeared in Dawn in 2016.
The first time I ever saw a transgender person was when I, along with some cousins, went to an ice-cream parlour in Karachi for a late night escapade on Eid. We were a few years shy of hitting puberty but old enough to have been introduced to hues of ‘sexual morality’.
We were sipping faludas and cracking jokes when a transgender came up to us and launched off into a rhythmic monologue, asking for money. Much of it, I couldn’t follow, save for the parts where she bestowed her blessings upon us, adding that God keenly listens to ‘her kind’.
I already knew my own mother believed that the prayers of transgender people are extremely powerful.
I peered closely at her face. It was striking to say the least; a strong jawline, matted brows. I was fascinated by her heavy make-up, garish jewelry and the dupatta slicked across her shoulders. I continued staring in awe, until my elder cousin nudged me to not pay any attention.
“But why?” I whispered back. “Shush. Just ignore her, and she’ll leave.”
Examine: ‘Our birth is our single biggest regret’ — Being transgender in Pakistan
Over the years, I encountered quite a few transgenders and witnessed their violent repression — each time, they were similarly avoided, or worse ridiculed.
At weddings, I would see them dancing; the more crude and exaggerated their moves, the more money they’d make. Most were laughed at and they took this too sportingly.
Growing up, I learned about the many myths surrounding transgenders in Pakistan. That many of them were really just men dressed up as women, forced into the business of begging on the streets, that many of them were ‘not really men’, but eunuchs.
During a biology class in school, I remember a student asking our teacher, who was delivering a lecture on genetics, about the Klinefelter’s syndrome.
“So that’s what all hijras (colloquial slur for transgenders) are!” someone exclaimed. “I am not sure,” said the teacher. “Some of them are; some aren’t.”
See: Being transgender — Facts, myths and rights
A year or two later, in a psychology class, I was studying gender identity disorders when someone exclaimed, “So that’s what khusras suffer from!”. “I am not sure,” said the teacher. “Some of them have it and some of them are forced into it for the trade.”
I flinched again.
No one talked about them. No one knew who they were. Where they lived. And yet, strangely enough, they were very much a part of our everyday conversation — especially when insulting someone.
Why was their identity a derogatory term used only to insult or degrade someone?
What do you say when you want to insult someone’s masculinity?
Hijray ho kya?
What do you say when someone doesn’t look appealing to you?
Khusra lag rehe/rehi ho.
What do producers do for a quick laugh on entertainment shows to spike up ratings?
Dress men up as women.
You’ll hear all of this in Pakistan. Because we have heartlessly internalised these terms. What you won’t hear about is how the transgender community is getting an education, if at all. What happens if they want to get married? What happens if they want to adopt? What happens if they are harassed?
What happens if they need medical, life-saving help?
The tragedy of Alisha
Last week, all of this came into sharp, vivid, heartbreaking focus when transgender Alisha was shot eight times at point blank rage in Peshawar. She was subsequently rushed to Lady Reading Hospital where doctors delayed her treatment as there was confusion about whether to put her in a ward for male or female patients — she later succumbed to her injuries.
It was also reported that the female patients at the hospital did not want Alisha in the female ward, it appears that they were more than willing to let a human being die because of their own version of what is and isn’t moral.
In a country where race, religion and ethnicity are powerful motivators to kill others, is it surprising to anyone that gender too, is used as just another tool of oppression by society?
Shemale Association president Farzana said that 45 transgender people have been killed in targeted incidents in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa since 2015.
The cold-blooded murders of transgenders is only the tip of the iceberg. On a daily basis, they are discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens.
To think of a bullet-riddled patient dying outside in the corridor, not receiving treatment in a hospital full of doctors — who take the Hippocratic oath of ‘do no harm’, doctors who should not and must not discriminate between a homosexual, a transgender, a pregnant teenager or an HIV positive young man.
And yet, that night as Alisha writhed in pain — between life and death — everything I had learned about transgender people in Pakistan came to a repulsive final realisation when the doctors, in their white smocks and years of education, asked Alisha,
Naachnay kay kitnay paisay layti ho?
(How much do you charge for dancing?)