Dancing with shackles

Published October 4, 2013

The figure dances wantonly in sync to a Bollywood song. Her face is spotted with garish makeup and her eyebrows have been plucked clean. Rosie’s heavy bust is disproportionate to the rest of the body – her glamorous appearance a stark contrast to the burdensome attire of the man she has to pose as in the day.

Used to living a carefree life, she feels working in a restricted environment of a humid kitchen and ‘acting’ like a male cook, her day job, cramps her style. Rosie feels incomplete.

Like Karachi and Lahore, markets in Islamabad and Rawalpindi are also riddled with transvestites and eunuchs. Their sensational attire makes it difficult for others to avert their eyes, but it would be injudicious to consider the lives of these women easy.

A resident of Hazara, Rosie has been bringing colour to weddings in Islamabad and Rawalpindi with her dance moves for the past 15 years. Her profession both fulfills her passion, and provides her money to cater to her needs.

Rosie says that even though she has mastered the art of cooking, it becomes difficult to remain consistent in one job when her tired body yearns to dance even after a tiring day’s work. Rosie adds that the evening is her own special time, which she likes to enjoy with friends. She declares,

If I have to wear male clothing, then God should have made me a man!

“Since the age of five, I have been doing all the household chores wearing a dupatta on my head. I was not fond of wearing my brothers’ clothes and participating in their activities. People who came to our house had realised this; and while some poked fun, others would express sorrow.”

A matter of honour

Rosie’s mother died when she was a child,

No one in the house understood me, neither did they pay any attention to the changes within me. In a way, I was free to do as I pleased, but once my identity was ascertained, it became a matter of honour for my brothers. Now I only call on a relative’s house wearing male clothing in the dark recesses of the night if someone has died.

From a very young age, Rosie had covertly started interacting with transvestites in her neighbourhood. With them, she secretly learned how to dance, and then came a time when she would accompany them to parties and weddings. She left school, then her village, and ultimately her city.

I followed my heart, but life was never the same again, she mused.

Today, Rosie is 35 years old.

According to her, the ideal age to be a wedding dancer is 16-17 years. Perhaps, that is the reason why those above the age of 20, consider themselves old.

Akhtar Baloch, who has done extensive research on transgenders in Pakistan, states that while the dancing and glamour attached to that specific industry is certainly very attractive, “these people have no other choice but to resort to begging once they come of age” since there are no other options available for them.

Despite the seeming carelessness attached to their lives, it is important to remember the strict territorial rules and regulations imposed on the everyday routine of Rosie and her friends. For example, transvestites working in Rawalpindi cannot work in Islamabad and vice versa.

Males cannot visit them at their residence at night, and in case of such an instance, the meeting must be held elsewhere. The community head or the ‘Guru’, who makes sure Rosie and others adhere to these unwritten regulations, is elected by the transgender community itself. The ‘Guru’ lifestyle, according to Rosie is very different from the other transgenders and some, Akhtar Baloch reveals, have even performed Haj up to seven times!

The price of being a woman

Like any other woman, Rosie resents the increase in tailor costs, saying that compounded with the shopping expenditure; the financial strain becomes unbearable. Their profession requires them to wear clothes in accordance with the latest fashions; a demand they fulfill by watching latest trends on cable TV.

However, unlike other women, transgenders have it even more difficult because of the ‘arrangements’ with the police. Rosie has to bribe policemen for something as simple as going shopping to the Sunday Bazaar.

Thus, members of her profession who prefer to earn a living only through their dance, without the difficulties of driving carts or the humiliation of begging, face worse hardships than their counterparts.

He said that even though the tradition of dancing and mehfils died down a bit after the creation of Pakistan, there remain some who gladly allow such parties to take place in their familial mansions, requesting a Kareena or a Reema number, among others while the older lot usually prefers the likes of Pakistani film actress, Anjuman. Rosie and her friends make sure to cater to the whims and fancies of their audience.

Suppressing true identity

Human Rights Activist Nuzhat Shireen say a lot of efforts need to be made to provide transgenders in Pakistani society with an identity of their own.

Speaking of social taboos and general mindsets in Pakistan, she said that the society tends to separates itself from a newborn upon its birth when it is found that it belongs to neither sex. It is just a way of life.

“If a child is blind, or is mentally or physically weak, there are special schools and treatment available for him or her! Even if he/she is enrolled in these schools, is he/she not special? So, shouldn’t there be special schools and institutions for transgenders as well?”

She states that there is a great need for awareness at the community level, meaning that such children should be given proper identities instead of being thrown out of their homes and then shunned by the outside world.

That child is a part of society too. The day they are wholly accepted, they shall stop performing at parties and partaking in other illegal professions.

Shireen says that special schools and skill-training institutions should be set up for such children. She adds that the Ministry of Information, Women’s Ministry and the private sector would have to work in collaboration to achieve this goal.

Several progressive men and women in the Pakistani society also share the view that this issue needs to be addressed in a peaceful and structured manner.

Even though the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) has taken responsibility of their registration and the government has allocated a two per cent quota for their jobs, like other systems in Pakistan it too, is a victim of arbitrariness.

“No regrets”

After undertaking this study, I have realised that the transgender community is divided into different classes. Rosie’s friends Noshi, Lubna and Rubi still make only 500-1500 rupees per night.

Without the Guru's permission, these ill-fated members of the Pakistani society cannot so much as meet with their National representative Almas Bobby, in order to reveal the many problems that regularly plague them.

Strangely enough, Almas Bobby did not want to talk about her situation.

The eunuchs complained that even though she – being the supposed representative of their community – lived in a mansion in Rawalpindi, which was worth Rs 80 million according to them, she refused to help them get their rights.

While talking to Nuzhat Shireen, I could hear Rosie’s voice reverberating around me. She was angry with God over her gender, but not regretful — because it was not in her hands.



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