It is night in the outskirts of Lahore, out of an anonymous building, taxis and richòs full of people keep arriving. Many men, young or not, get off the cars, they enter in the old building and go to the first floor, where disco music and strobe lights welcome whoever arrives. As soon as you become familiar with the high volume, you immediately understand you are in one of the numerous clandestine night parties of Pakistan. It is an illegal and out of the box party: Lady Roma’s birthday party, a Pakistani transgender.
An apparent tolerance
It is right from this party that the journey trough the Pakistani LGBT world begins. Starting from an apparently cheerful moment, a complex world is unveiled, contradictory and dramatic. Formally, Pakistani transsexuals are endowed with more rights than in other countries around the world, but in fact they are victims of stigmatization. The Supreme Court of Islamabad acknowledged the “third gender” in 2009, and a little time before the voting rights had been guaranteed to the members of the LGBT community. That, apparently, would suggest that the transsexuals are tolerated and integrated, but in fact the situation is far more complicated and it is necessary to go back through the past centuries to understand the current social contest in which the lady boys of this Asian country are living.
Between 1500 and 1600 a.C the Hijiras or Khawaja Siras, the term that defines the transsexual in Pakistan and India, had a great respect at the court of the Mogul emperors and they held some of the more important administrative and military offices. However, the situation changed radically during the Britannic colonialism. The English people accused the transsexuals of violating the public decency, they introduced the homosexuality offence in the 1860 penal code and this same homophobic mentality was then inherited by the dictator Muhammad Zia in 1978. And today, even though the law has changed, in reality the transgender world is still victim of a big social stigmatization. The Khawaja Siras are, indeed, targets of the conservative groups and of that of the Islamic extremists, and in order to survive the most of them are forced to beg, prostitute or dance during baptisms, circumcisions or other celebrations, since they are renowned for their choreographic capabilities and for bringing good luck.
The celebrated Lady Roma sits on a throne, while the photographers run out of flashes to portray her. She is wearing gaudy clothes just like other tens of colleagues. The spectators, young or not, continue to arrive in the room and sit on the chairs waiting to see the performance of the dancers. As soon as the celebrations begin, the Hijras start swaying on the dance floor, they wiggle their hips and try to be sensual and to attract the people surrounding them and throwing coins while they are dancing. “The birthday girl is my apprentice and I am very glad of this event, because all the girls are dancing very well and a lot of people came here to have fun with them without disrespecting them”. These are the words of Gehta Babi, a guru, the head of a transsexuals community who teaches to her adepts how to dance and behave in a feminine way, who helps them to find job opportunities and guarantees protection.
“In the Mosque only men clothes”
In order to better understand the Pakistani transgender world. from Lady Roma’s party we go and knock on the door of the community of the guru Diba Lal, in the city of Pattoki. Inside a room three Hijras are playing music and others are dancing, violating one of the Islamic law precepts, the one that forbids women to dance in front of the men. Then, during the dinner, Diba Lal tells: “I live here like a mother with her children. Today I am a guru, but I have been an apprentice for years. When I was 16 years old I used to live with some circus artists and I performed during the shows, then I met my current companion and we both came to live in this community, and today I carry forward the work other teachers started before me”.
Then the woman that the other Hijras call mum (mother), goes on: “We live together also to have more protection and to help us each other. The transsexuals are very discriminated in Pakistan. We can go to the mosque only if we are wearing men clothes and we cannot put makeup; there are a lot of fanatics who want to see us dead, and speaking of that: take a look!” Diba Lal takes her phone and shows a video of an acquaintance of her who, assaulted in her own house, was killed. The images was commented by a deafening silence and the ferocity of the pictures flowing on the screen highlights the problem the Pakistani transgenders constantly have to deal with: the discrimination, the persecution, the intolerance, the threats, the violence and even the death. In Pakistan the LGBT community counts from 350 up to 500 thousand people. There are not precise numbers, even though the Pakistani government announced a new census for 2017 and, for the first time in history, also the transgenders will be counted as third gender. Again here it is the dichotomy of a reality that on one hand seems much more progressive than other contests in the world, but on the other hides grave disquieting aspects.
The NGO for the rights of the LGBT community
In order to encompass all the details of this situation it is necessary to go to the NGO Khawaja Sira Society, fighting for transsexuals’ and homosexuals’ rights. Inside the organization some transsexual are dancing, others are reading, there is also a little medical ward where HIV tests are made for free, since one of the plagues afflicting the transgender community is right the diffusion of sexually transmitted diseases: just think that the 6,8% of the 22 thousand transsexual in Lahore are HIV-positive. Here we talk with Moon Ali, director of the NGO: “In Pakistan, we must say it, the transgenders have no rights. Being acknowledged as third gender is not enough to have social right. That is a formality. When a large part of the population has no chances to survive a part from prostituting or performing at the parties, then it means that that minority is discriminated. Today we transsexuals have no alternatives.
Then Moon Alì goes on: “I go to the university, I live with my family, who accepted my condition, and I never sold myself. But I want our world to change! It is necessary that also the transgenders exit from this reality made of commodification and that they start studying and yearning for prestigious jobs and public offices. Many people hate us, the Islamic extremists in primis: some of us are killed, but we have to be brave, to have a culture of ourselves and the courage to start the changing; only in this way we can say we have rights and we are not only an object of sex surge.
Pictures by Marco Gualazzini