This article originally appeared on VICE.
"My father used to beat me and ask, ‘Why do you have to go around pretending to be a girl?’”
Now at 35, she says her cheeks burn and fists tighten if anyone refers to her as a man.
Khushboo, whose name means fragrance, classifies herself as a hijra, a South Asian gender designation that encompasses transgender and transexual people, as well as transvestites and eunuchs.
She has a different definition for herself and the estimated hundreds of thousands of other hijras across the region. “Our souls are female and our bodies are male,” she says, dipping a rag into a red plastic pail filled with a chalky mixture of water and face powder. Surrounded by a group of several other hijras in a room they call their “office,” Khushboo smears the dripping rag over her face and adds, “I’ve known I was a hijra since I was a child.”
She used to wear her sisters’ clothes. At 16, Khushboo slipped out of the house in one of their outfits and didn’t return home for years. Along with another hijra, she settled in Peshawar, a city in northwestern Pakistan one night’s drive from the costal city of Karachi where she’d grown up.
Peshawar has long been home to cultural traditions that insist on strict gender segregation, and the city has come under increasing sway of an extremist view of Islam in recent years. These intolerant, conservative beliefs are made brutally clear through the bombings and shootings that are now near-weekly occurrences.
Taliban suicide bombers killed 85 worshipers at a church there last September, and militants killed 13 people at a cinema showing pornographic movies in February. Lesser attacks are momentary blips on local news coverage featuring bloodied streets and blaring sirens.
Khushboo points to battered doors and broken windows around her. She says young men —“college boys” she calls them — wreak havoc on her and fellow hijras who are preparing for a dance performance later that night. Sometimes the men recite scripture and beat the hijras to shame them out of their profession as dancers, and other times they force them to dance or even rape them, she tells me.
Despite the extremism that has only further marred the city since her arrival nearly 20 years ago, Khushboo has an affinity for Peshawar because it’s where she had a sort of rebirth as her new self.
Free from the abuse of her father and brothers, as well as the sense of dishonor she felt on behalf of her mother and sisters, Khushboo embraced a new life of openness — and was adopted into a new family.
“In this field we have mothers. We have gurus. We have uncles and aunts,” she says, and then points to a girl who’s rolling a spliff in the corner of the room. “She’s my daughter. I’m a daughter of someone so she has a grandmother too. And,” Khushboo adds, “She also has a father.”
That last bit comes so quickly that I almost miss it. I inquire further about the girl’s “papa” and Khushboo says, “Her father is married to someone else, but he loves me.” She then goes on to explain what their relationship entails — and it’s all very practical until it gets utterly tragic: “If I’m sick, he comes by and brings me medicine,” she says proudly. “If I don’t have money he drops some cash off. If I die, it’s this man who will dress me up as a man and take my body to his house to carry out the cemetery. He might not explain the full story and just say that I was killed in the market or that there was some kind of shooting, but he’s the one who will take care of the funeral.”
I can’t help but think that this grim possibility is one that Khushboo has discussed with her “husband”— and one that he too has come to terms with.
“In Pakistani society, there is a really strong [sense of] place and family,” says Dr. Jamil Ahmad Chitrali, a professor of anthropology. “There is no alternative for anyone.”
Based at the University of Peshawar, Chitrali has written about the city’s hijra community. He says that by forging the same sorts of familial connections that they left behind, hijras create a social order that mimics the very society from which many of them fled.
“It’s forcing all those revolutionary individuals who are against those binaries of man and woman to come into a structure which is reaffirming patriarchy,” he says.
Pakistan’s hijras have made some strides in recent years despite their rather isolated existence. In 2012, the Pakistani Supreme Court allowed for a “third gender” category to be added to national identity cards, which effectively gave hijras increased legal standing. It’s because of this broader recognition that hijras could vote in that year’s presidential election—at least five hijras even ran for office.
But the third gender classification has made little practical difference in Khusbhoo’s life. “We live in a third world,” she says, the difference between her life and that of a cisgender person just as stark as the difference between life in Pakistan, and say, Monaco.
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And, she says, no matter what she does, she’ll always be seen as different.
“Even if I give up dancing, everyone will still call me a hijra so what’s the point? Why not do what I love?” She adds that even if she were to become a traveling evangelist, her family would still regard her with the same disdain. “I’m better off staying a hijra.”
And that’s the hardest thing that Khushboo has to face: her family. She got back in touch with them after five years of not speaking, and goes to see them in Karachi at least once a year. But when she does, she goes dressed as a man.
Though she moves about as a woman in Peshawar, Khushboo wears a black floor length, full-sleeved robe (or abaya), and a face covering (or niqab) that reveals only her eyes to hide herself from prying eyes. Even so, she’s been thrown out of several houses by people who fear hijras will ruin their neighborhood.
While they occupy a marginalized space across Pakistan, hijras are probably worst off in Peshawar. In all of the other major cities in the country, they are frequent sites at traffic intersections or in shopping centers where they offer a prayer for a few rupees. Many passersby fear denying them might mean a curse and so will either oblige quickly or turn away completely.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Peshawar over the years, and have never seen hijras out in public the way they are in other cities. After speaking with Professor Chitrali, I learned that might be because hijras have a different role in the Pathan society that dominates the Peshawar area. In this part of the country, hijras aren’t seen to have some sort of greater spiritual connection than cisgender people—instead, their role is celebratory. They’re often asked to sing and dance at weddings and births.
“It's their performance which gives [a family] social recognition,” Chitrali says, though the tradition is fading as weddings move from family houses into wedding halls. Some might have other professions—Khushboo says she has hijra friends who are lawyers and pilots and act cisgender in order to maintain their jobs, though they’re free to “be themselves” with her and other hijras.
Due to a lack of societal acceptance, many hijras live marginalized lives as low-income entertainers, but they’ve got a bit of a role as educators, too. Hijras sometimes teach—or even initiate—young men into sex. For many in Peshawar who live by strict religious and cultural codes that denounce almost any pre-marital interaction between the sexes as sinful, hijras provide a sort of in-between, or a “cushion,” as Chistrali calls it.
“If you cross the domain of manhood into womanhood, that is against the culture, that is crossing your limits. But you can always move into the gray area, so this hijra community, in that sense, in a clear binary of man and woman among Pathans, [forms] a gray area.” But he says that this “learning experience” is becoming less common with such how-to’s readily available on the internet.
In Peshawar’s increasingly religiously-motivated milieu, the presence of hijras — be they dancers or sex workers — is frowned upon and politicians vie for favor by pushing them out of their homes and work sites.
Seeing this, Malik Iqbal says he wanted to do something. “I sympathize with them because no one gives them any space,” he tells me.
He rents out the office that Khusboo and her fellow hijras use to prepare for their dances.
“I didn’t used to be on their side,” Iqbal says. “Now I help them. I say they’re humans too. We should have some empathy for that reason. Not just me, everyone should empathize with them as people.”
But some believe Iqbal’s connection to hijras goes beyond a shared humanity. Though he refuses to speak about it, Iqbal was arrested in 2010 for attempting to marry a hijra called Rani. Such a union would be illegal under Pakistani law, which only recognizes marriages between men and women. He has repeatedly denied the charge and claimed that police were trying to extort money from hijras at an event that wasn’t a marriage but an innocent birthday party. Either way, the shock the story garnered reveals just how far removed everyday Pakistanis are from the hijra community. A big-grossing film called Bol, or Speak — released in 2011— may have helped some, but real connections like Iqbal's remain few.
And not everyone in close proximity to hirjas is sympathetic. Noor Illahi, who owns a grain shop down the street from the hijras’ office, doesn’t have a problem with the hijras themselves or even their work, but thinks they should find some other place to go. “My work has suffered because of them. The other storeowners and I, we think they should be given some place off to the side. It should be separate.”
He’s worked in his store for 15 years and says that sales have dropped fifty percent since the hijras set up shop next door a few years ago. “There are a lot of fights here now. They create quite a scene sometimes.”
The raucousness has driven away his customers. Those who stop in the area are more interested in the hijras than the sacks of flour he has for sale.
“I’m not personally offended by them. But look,” he says, pointing to a group of several white shalwar kameez-clad men loitering outside the hijra’s building. “These poor people have earned just three or four hundred rupees all day ($3-4) and they’ll come here and waste it all on them.”
The men are all rickshaw drivers. One by one, they go on the record to deny being there to solicit sex. “We’re just here to chit chat with them,” one says while peering over his shoulder to see if any of the hijras have come out into the alley. “It’s a totally innocent relationship that we have with them.”
Back up in the hijras’ office, the lights have gone out as a part of the rolling power outages that have frustrated Pakistanis for years. It might be another hour before they’re ready to leave for their performance. When they do, they’ll be cloaked in massive shawls and under the cover of night.