‘Earning isn’t as big a problem as acceptance is for us’

Published November 19, 2014
Iraj Aftab working in the price control office of the Karachi commissioner.
—Photo by writer
Iraj Aftab working in the price control office of the Karachi commissioner. —Photo by writer

KARACHI: “You will hire a Seraiki gardener or a Bengali cook, but would you hire a shemale even as a domestic servant?” Twenty-three-year-old Iraj Aftab’s simple question brings the entire issue of transgenders into perspective.

“I’m a student of psychology and as an intermediate student a few years ago I worked as a teacher for mentally-challenged children. I enjoyed my job but gave it up when parents aired their concerns to the school management over their children being taught by my type,” the pretty person with silky black shoulder-length hair and a model’s pout says.

We are seated in an air-conditioned room with wood panelling on the walls in the office of the Karachi commissioner. There are several stacks of files bundled together on Iraj’s desk as she gets busy with her work on her computer. “I work in price control. I gather all the data to prepare the price lists for everyday use items. I also handle complaints from the general public,” she says about her duties.

Asked how she landed the job, Iraj says that she came through a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called the Gender Interaction Alliance (GIA). “They work for human rights basically. The president of the NGO is Bindiya Rana,” she says. “I am still on probation here but thanks to Commissioner Shoaib Siddiqui sahib, orders to make me a permanent employee have been issued. I’ve been working here for seven to eight months now and like it very much. Though the salary is Rs10,000 a month only, I am respected. No one passes judgement on me.”


Government employee Iraj Aftab has been issued a CNIC with ‘shemale’ written in the gender category


Iraj isn’t the only shemale working in a government office. “GIA has also helped place one of us at a National Database and Registration Authority [Nadra] office. There are others, too, at Cantonment Board Clifton, Cantonment Board Faisal, etc,” she says. “It’s a very positive step taken by the government.”

But working at the commissioner’s office from 10am to 4pm, five days a week, isn’t all that Iraj does. “I am doing BSc in psychology. In between I also did a course in hotel management from the Pakistan Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management. And whenever I am called to sing or dance at a function I do that, too.”

“Look,” she says. “I don’t enjoy it very much but I can’t also live on a Rs10,000 salary. My parents, especially my mother, wanted me to get proper education and I am doing that but even after having degrees we aren’t taken seriously. The functions help supplement our income. If I got a good salary, one on which I could live comfortably, I wouldn’t be dancing at functions but since that isn’t the case, I do what comes naturally to me. The people, too, accept us better in that role.

“See, growing up you have come to accept your father going to office, your mother doing the household chores. You don’t question these stereotypes and for us transgenders and shemales you are used to seeing us sing and dance.

“If not that then there is only begging left. You can’t imagine how I feel seeing my kind begging at traffic intersections. You know, we really care about our well-being. We care about our hair, our skin, hygiene, etc. So standing in the sun begging for hours at traffic signals isn’t something we do for enjoyment. It’s survival when there isn’t anything else left for you to do,” Iraj explains.

“Earning isn’t as big a problem as acceptance is for us. But things are changing. A couple of months ago, I got my proper CNIC made from Nadra with ‘shemale’ printed in the gender category.”

Asked if she was fine with that instead of taking offence, Iraj smiles and says: “Why would I be offended at being recognised for who I am? It’s recognition of our identity, acceptance of the fact that we exist.”

Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2014

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