This year, a group of Pakistanis standing in local elections are making history and charting hope. As hijras, they represent a segment of the South Asian country’s sexual and gender minority population as frequently misunderstood as they are stigmatized. As political hopefuls, they plan to use public platforms to send a message of equality.
Across South Asia, the term “hijra” refers to people who are born male, but identify as more feminine, and traditionally undergo castration and live in communities with other hijras under a community leader. In a popular essay on the hijras of India, scholar Serena Nanda explains: “The cultural notions of hijras as ‘intersexed’ and ‘eunuchs’ emphasize that they are neither male nor female, man nor woman. At a more esoteric level, the hijras are also man plus woman, or erotic and sacred female men.”
Gender-liminal and often socially marginalized, at different periods in history, hijras have been worshipped as much as they have been feared – and exploited. For example, hijras are hired to bless newborn boys, but their work as beggars or sex workers has also led governments to exploit their mystique as in Pakistan where they have been hired as tax collectors.
Among some activists in Pakistan, hijras are lumped in under a broad “transgender” category – one that has seen significant recognition of rights in recent years.
This year at least four hijra candidates will stand for provincial office in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province. One of them is Bindiya Rana, a veteran activist. She hopes the move to take on public office will inspire self-confidence in others.
“I hope this goes to show that, if given a chance, transgender people might serve the people of Pakistan like any men or women,” she told 429Magazine.
Underlying the emergence of hijras as political candidates are several recent changes in Pakistani law and society, including a 2009 Supreme Court decision mandating the government treat hijras – sometimes called “eunuchs” – as equal citizens. The court chose to do this by establishing a legally-recognized third gender category.
The case was unique even among progressive gender identity laws. The International Commission of Jurists categorizes the case as a “transgender recognition case” but notes that, unlike in many such cases, the Pakistani Supreme Court did not focus its analysis on the question of gender reassignment surgery when it ordered that a third gender ought to be legally established.
As part of the change, Pakistanis can now register on citizenship documents and voter rolls as male, female, or transgender – meaning this year’s general election will be the first time hijras will be allowed to vote.
“Gradually they are getting their status [as]citizens of Pakistan, as respectable Pakistani citizens,” the lead lawyer in the case, Muhammad Aslam Khaki, told reporters in 2011.
According to Rana, Pakistan’s third gender category is available on documents for anyone who wants it. “Registration is carried out without any medical proof on their given particulars and details at the time of registration,’’ she said.
Other South Asian countries have implemented third gender categories to recognize sexual and gender minorities in recent years. Bangladesh has attempted to include non-male, non-female persons in voting; India has gradually implemented a third category on passports and some other documents; and Nepal’s Supreme Court has recognized a third gender category across the board, which has been implemented slowly through a federal census, voter registration, and citizenship documents.
All four of the candidates standing for office in Pakistan this year possess citizenship documents listing them as transgender, which activists estimate approximately 70 people have been able to access in Sindh province.
“The reason not so many people have the new citizenship documents is that many transgender people get separated from their families at an early age because of bad attitudes [from the families],” said Rana, explaining that showing parents’ documents is required for getting one’s own.
Other activists cite the desire to go on the Hajj pilgrimage as a reason behind the low numbers. Since Saudi Arabia doesn’t recognize documents listing gender other than male or female, some transgender people in Pakistan keep their male documents intact so they can travel to Mecca.
If elected to office, Rana hopes her political career – and those of other hijras – will demonstrate to Pakistanis not only that transgender people can contribute to society, but that their suffering is like that of many other people: a struggle for jobs and security.
“HIV/AIDS is not the only problem faced by transgender people,” Rana said, explaining that hijras are struggling to shed the reputation of being menacing beggars or thieves. “Our biggest problem is unemployment, lack of education, lack of shelter, and problems related to health and medical treatment.”
She believes more attention to prominent transgender people can educate the general public by showing that “even though they are unemployed, [hijras]are not involved in any sort of criminal activities. They choose to sell their own bodies instead of selling other people – the transgender people of Pakistan beg to make a living instead of stealing from others.”
Pakistan’s election, scheduled for May 11, will elect the country’s 14th parliament as well as provincial assemblies.