The Invisibles: Peshawar’s transgender pushed to society’s fringe

Updated March 21, 2015

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“Khushboo” a transgender from Peshawar: Photo by Author
“Khushboo” a transgender from Peshawar: Photo by Author

PESHAWAR: At the age of 15, Mussarat a transgender from Bajaur, ran away from his home to seek refuge in Peshawar and in search of the transgender community.

“I left my home because my parents did not accept me the way I was,” Mussarat tells News Lens as he applies make-up for a performance at a wedding.

“I don’t miss my parents but I loved my aunt who would try and protect me every time my father beat me up.”

Mussarat sends his aunt money every now and then but still hides the truth about his whereabouts from her: “I told her that I am working as a waiter at a hotel in Rawalpindi.”

As a child, Mussarat says he was molested time and again by boys and men in the village and had to leave because of the “social embarrassment and hurdles” his presence created for his parents.

His father would beat him for anything that went wrong in the house. “My father considered me a curse for the entire family,” he says, “Whenever something went wrong, my father held me responsible for it.”

Now he lives with his community members in Gul Bahar in Peshawar where, Mussarat says, they are treated like strangers by people.

Ostracised by society and alienated because of their physical and psychological attributes, the transgender community tends to live in closely-knit groups where their interaction with society is limited to begging, prostitution and performing at weddings.

Social scientists say that transgender community lives in extreme poverty owing to society's perception of them as 'freaks' who lack skills for regular employment.

They are shunned by their families and schools, humiliated by teachers and students, and have no place in the market as they are deemed unfit for regular jobs.

“These transgender souls are misfits; they are women trapped in a man’s body — born with male reproductive organs but behave like women — and this is the main reason why society treats them as pariahs,” says Professor Jamil Ahmad Chitrali, who teaches anthropology at the University of Peshawar.

“When it is hard for women to cope in our patriarchal society, how can they [transgender] survive?” Chitrali told News Lens Pakistan.

I sat with Mussarat in her tiny room as Farooq alias Madhuri – named after the popular Bollywood star – added final touches to her hair. The door of the room was ajar, and as people passed by, I saw them stop and stare at us.

I asked Khushboo, another transgender who shared the room with Farooq and Mussarat, if we could close the door. “What?!” She tartly responded in the distinctive theatrical tone. “These people will break the door and you can’t do a thing about it.”

Mussarat asked if I could do anything to help them get rid of the everyday abuse they face.

“No, you can’t do a thing,” he says, in reply to the question.

A bunch of people including young and old men stood as spectators before the open door, peering into the flat where Mussarat lives.

A man sitting in one of the rooms came out to ask about my identity. I said I was from the media. Amongst the men who looked like women, clad in the clothes of a woman, faces masked in make-up –– we were the only men there.

“Are you listening to the voices coming from outside the gate?” asks Khushboo, drawing my attention to the suggestive remarks from the crowd intent on gatecrashing.

“Every day we take abuse from the society, even here in our own flat,” she says in a soft, sad tone.

Khushboo is the head of the group that lives in the flat – a guru whose authority every person in the house accepts as someone responsible for their well-being.

“Most of the time, goons get drunk and come here asking for sexual favours,” Khushboo tells News Lens.

“We can’t do anything as such people are influential and threaten us with dire consequences if we refuse.”

The anthropologist Jamil Chitrali says that, the families of transgender people do not accept them due to the shame that is associated with them. People slander their names with a negative overtone which leads to abuse, humiliation and hatred towards them.

There are two factors, says Chitrali, that lead to banishment of transgender people from society: “One is the push factor from the society and the other is the pull factor from the transgender community. After alienation from the society, a transgender person is pulled by their community they go to live with and support through dancing and prostitution.”

When Mussarat left home in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), he visited the transgender community where he came across their guru. He took up residence with him because he had nowhere else to stay.

“I was young – only 15 – and the guru used me to solicit sex,” says Mussarat. “He charged a customer Rs 1000 ($10) for a night with me,” he says, with tears rolling down his cheek. “I was too young at the time.”

Mussarat was taken to Jalalabad in Afghanistan four years ago by one of the guru’s “clients” for prostitution. He says he was happy now, living here with Khushboo who has taken him in as his daughter.

Kashish, another transgender in male clothes, says he was molested by men who had forced themselves upon him and thrust bottles inside him so hard that they broke.

“I have been through a major surgery to remove glass shards from my rectum,” Kashish told News Lens. “I want to have an operation to change sex, to remove the male organ because I want to be a woman. I am done with all the abusive men the society piles at us.”

The transgender use “him” and “her” interchangeably for themselves and to address one of their kind. The use of inverted appellation – using feminine references for `male’ persons (and vice versa) – is a common phenomenon among the transgender people.

“In this manner, gay men can at once appropriate and resist their abject positioning in the larger socio-sexual field, contributing, in the process, to a resistive rearticulation and creative reimagination of the performative construction of gender and sexuality,” says Mutti Bunzil in the research paper Inverted Appellation and Discursive Gender Insubordination.

“We have a mother we call guru, sisters and daughters but no husbands in our community,” Khushboo explains.

“Our boyfriends – real male, not transgender – are like our husbands – they are responsible for their transgender partners with whom they can have consensual sex.”

He went on to say, "we have our own world without the males and females of yours.”

Some social scientists are of the opinion that the family structure of a transgender community challenges patriarchy but Jamil says it actually supplements it rather than challenging it.

He argues that their so called family system was actually based on patriarchy where they made a guru – a male transgender as opposed to a female transgender – their leader, responsible for their well-being.

“They basically challenge women because they term themselves as powerful as women,” says Jamil.

A man entered the room to hand over his National Identity Card to Khushboo who said they take cards from the customers due to security reasons whenever one of his disciples like Mussarat – go out to perform at a function.

Given the environment of fear and insecurity in Peshawar, do the transgender feel safe? Khusboo says they are not threatened by militants nor have they been displaced by terrorism but their biggest concern is the attitude of the society and police towards them.

“The police ask for bribes when we come out at night,” Khusboo complains.

The governments of Pakistan are yet to provide equal rights to transgender people but the community is still striving towards it. In 2011, the Supreme Court of Pakistan issued a verdict terming transgender as equal citizens of Pakistan.

“It took the government over 60 years to accept us as humans and that too only after the Supreme Court (SC) passed the order that we should be registered as khwaja saras,” Bindiya Rana, the president of the Gender Interactive Alliance who works for Transgender rights told the Herald, in 2011. In terms of gender, x means the eunuch or the third sex.

Despite the Supreme Court verdict and directives to the National Database Registration Authority (NADRA) to register transgender as a “Khwaja sara”, Peshawar’s transgender community has yet to get their Computerised National Identity Cards (CNIC) issued by NADRA.

Khushboo says he submitted his form and pictures to secure a CNIC a year ago but NADRA officials are yet to issue him a CNIC. He has an identity card that says “male” in the sex column.

“There are 30 transgenders residing here and not one of them have a special CNIC with a column saying Khwaja sara,” says Khushboo.


The article originally appeared in News Lens