Pakistan's Hijras

Feminine Soul, Masculine Body

A whirling flock of people, singing, dancing, and clapping their hands, moves along toward a gorgeous villa in Lahore where a wedding is being celebrated. Seemingly a flock of birds of paradise, the group dazzles one’s eyes, ears, and nose, and a foreigner might think that these were giddy women given to hysteria. A second look, however, confirms that these are boys and men wearing women’s clothing, jewelry, and makeup. They have come to the party to bless the bridegroom, for which they receive luxurious gifts.

At first glance, Hijras [the Urdu word for “hermaphrodites”—WPR] are men in women’s clothing. So, they must be transvestites, right? No. Most Western transvestites prefer women as sexual partners, are often married, and only dress in women’s clothing now and then, often in secret. Hijras, on the other hand, function in society only as women, and their partners are men or other Hijras. So, what are the Hijras? Farrah, born Ahmed, around 35 years of age and a Hijra for the last 20 years, explains, “We are neither men nor women. We have men’s bodies and women’s souls.” We are in a squalid neighborhood of Karachi, sitting in a tiny room that Farrah shares with Balli, also a Hijra. Like most Hijras, they entered the Hijra world in their youth. “We were born Hijras and felt by the age of 5 or 6 that we weren’t boys,” Farrah explains. They followed tradition by taking girl’s names and choosing a guru or “mistress,” and have ever since worn only women’s clothing, long hair, and lots of makeup. For many years they have been living together in their guru’s house with five other “daughters” in their extended Hijra family.

Their ancient, powerful, and respected Hijra mistress, Farzana, rules the family and the house with a firm hand. Each Hijra house, like Farzana’s, has had for decades a carefully delimited part of town that the guru controls and in which the “daughters” work. Traditionally, the Hijras earn money in three ways: In the afternoon they collect “gifts” in the local bazaar, in the evening they bless bridegrooms or newly born sons, and at night they engage in prostitution. Their clients are “normal” men, who allow themselves both a wife and a Hijra, with whom they may maintain a love relationship lasting for years.

Prostitution, both heterosexual and homosexual, is forbidden in strict Islamic Pakistan. Farrah said that a policeman threatened her once with arrest for immoral behavior, and she told him simply, “My behind belongs to me, not the Pakistani state, and that’s the way it’s going to stay.” The Hijras are quick on repartee but are otherwise mostly peaceful; 80 percent of them are illiterate.

The history of Pakistani Hijras is rooted in Indian culture. As early as 1000 B.C., ancient Indian medical texts mention the existence of a “third sex,” which appears when the genetic matter of the father and mother are present to exactly the same degree. An old legal text also dealt with the third sex, which had no right to inherit property, was not allowed to conduct sacrifices, and was expelled from the caste. The third sex was recognized to exist but was
discriminated against.

The partition of the subcontinent at the end of British rule affected Hijra society as well. Despite its strict Islamic orientation, Pakistan ended up having to accept the organized and strong Hijra subculture—what could it have done with the hundreds of thousands of Hijras—and people are used to them. The Hijras are Muslims, and in their own view, their third sex is the result of Allah’s will.

“What difference does being of the third sex make?” I ask Farrah’s longtime lover, a tall Pashtun with eyes as green as gooseberries. He laughs self-consciously and says that Hijras aren’t real men—they don’t have that essence. He continues, saying that many Hijras, but by no means all, had themselves castrated. This shows that many Hijras are rather like Western transsexuals, who regard themselves trapped in false bodies and are determined to become women. Whereas in the West one can adopt the desired sex through an operation, Hijras are castrated as a matter of free choice by their guru, in accordance with a long-standing tradition.

In India and Pakistan, one often hears derogatory remarks about Hijras who allegedly steal boys and forcibly castrate them. These are simply efforts to criminalize Hijras and legitimize their marginalization. All the Hijras I met in India and Pakistan who had chosen castration had done so of their own free will, just as they had chosen to join Hijra society of their own free will. But many Hijras do reject castration. Farrah takes no female hormones (many Hijras take them to feminize their bodies), nor does she want to be castrated. “My soul is female, I couldn’t care less about my body. You see how I can turn myself into a woman with clothes and makeup.”

Not all Hijras can be considered transsexuals. Some are rather like transvestites or men with homosexual tendencies. Like the Western gay scene, their society forms a space in which men with various tendencies and different images of themselves can be together. Hijras could be called “transgender” people who feel a deep need to reject and go beyond their biological sex and social gender roles, something that has existed for centuries in all cultures. Unlike Western “transgender” people, the Hijras are not solitary, invisible fighters but are visible and organized and have been present in society for thousands of years.

The Hijra code, a set of unwritten rules, compels all those who join to wear women’s clothing and to have women’s hairdos. They are often taken for women, but their goal is not to fool other people. “No,” says Farrah, “everyone should see that we are Hijras and are proud of it.” In truth, you can spot Hijras at a distance from the way they clap their hands as they go through the bazaars in the afternoon, making obscene gestures and rude remarks in front of shops where customers hang out. Everyone knows that the Hijras will leave only when the shop owner gives them money, usually 10-20 rupees [US20-41 cents]. They are offensive and mocking, not so much because they want to be, but because tradition demands it. That is their job.

Hijras are considered dangerous. They can bestow not only blessings but also curses. The curse of childlessness is wielded as a weapon against anyone who makes fun of them or refuses to give them money. But usually the Hijras bestow blessings, as only blessings bring them money, up to 1,000 rupees (officially worth about $20 but actually worth about $340 in purchasing power).The attitude of Pakistanis toward Hijras is contradictory: Some accept them, others hate them, many fear them, many are amazed by them, a few like them, many make fun of them, and no one invites them in. They are considered unclean, and only their lovers eat with them at the same table. “Only a Hijra can understand another Hijra!” claims Farrah. Even for me, after living with them for months, they remain mysterious and incomprehensible. Once, when I ventured to doubt a bold assertion, Farrah warned me impishly, “Just be careful, all Hijras lie!”