It was the first day of my internship at Lahore's Fountain House. I was sitting next to Doctor Saima, project manager of the Khawaja Sara Rehabilitation Program, preparing myself for the task I was about to undertake: interview a khawaja sara.
Through the narrow wooden doors of the Fountain House came an indistinguishable figure, who was introduced to me as Firdos.
Her jovial arm movements and loud melodious humming helped ease the terse atmosphere of the room.
After our introduction, Doctor Saima and her team left the room, leaving me to interview Firdos. I was soon to learn that past the jovial exterior, there was an endless pit of sorrow. When Firdos started narrating her life experiences to me, I was overcome with emotion.
She was robbed of her innocence at the tender age of seven. From there on, she relayed how she felt like a toy created to satisfy the perverted desires of monsters lurking in society.
Hearing her story, I felt ashamed that my country, built on the principles of freedom and equality, had reduced a graduate to beg for survival. Yes, Firdos has a degree.
She set up her own school to empower khawaja saras and instill in them the qualities of tolerance and acceptance that she herself yearned to see. But this dream was shattered when a wave of nationalisation by the Bhutto government saw her school being seized from her.
Her next attempt to make a mark came in the form of a son whom she adopted from her sister. She loved him with all her heart, educating him and getting him married into a good family. But, conditioned by society, he became ashamed of her, and eventually severed all contact.
In the eyes of Firdos, her son Abbas Ali was “dead” and one can imagine the magnitude of sorrow that she carried with that realisation. Her latest occupation became to educate her two grandsons that her son had abandoned. She is currently focused on educating them and freeing them from the poverty that has dictated her life.
Unfortunately, life hasn't given her any respite and she is forced to beg to ensure her grandchildren receive the education that she has envisioned for them.
Alienating the community
It was devastating for me to realise that most of them consider their birth the 'single biggest regret in life'.
As soon as their gender identity begins to unfold, the future of khawaja saras becomes shaky. Their childhoods are plagued with memories of aggressive relatives determined to shake them out of what they call their “feminine phase”.
When the families of khawaja saras choose to accept their 'different offspring' as humans and not a 'curse', they are ridiculed by society — this constant berating forces most khawaja saras to run away from home.
Desperate for money, many young khawaja saras succumb to prostitution. In some perverse and strange twist of fate, most of them end up ‘servicing’ the same society that is hell bent on discarding them.
My internship reminded me that I, too, am a part of the system that alienates this community.
One of many
Firdos' story is just one of many. Dr Saima Nasim narrated many harrowing stories of the unthinkable hardships and brutalities faced by this grossly-neglected community.
Her extensive research has brought to light the fact that most khawaja saras begin to regret their choices by the age of 50. Having severed their connections with their families and a lack of clientele, they mostly resort to beggary.
Their noble project to lift khawaja saras from the bottom of our society was launched by the Fountain House in affiliation with AKHUWAT.
At its core, the Khawaja Sara Rehabilitation Program aims to uplift the financial structure of this community, and reintegrate them back into society.
There are certain objectives that govern this rehabilitation program:
- It aims to promote rights and responsibilities within the community, as well as create a system of social support for the khawaja sara community.
- Through the effective use of dialogue and media communications, the Fountain House aims to soften the hearts of society to embrace these individuals back with open arms. The core of this program aims to financially empower them.
The Fountain House is determined to conquer this uphill task and remains steadfast in the face of the innumerable challenges that the program has had to withstand. The reintegration of khawaja siras into the work place is a particularly difficult task as the social taboo surrounding their existence leaves most employers unwilling to hire them.
Prejudices against this group has also deeply seeped into the healthcare system as too often hospitals either do not treat them equally, or do not treat them at all.
In a recent tragic incident, a KP transgender, who was shot eight times by a customer earlier this week, died today. This is the fifth case of violence against transgenders in KP this year alone.
My interaction with the khawaja sara community was a truly life-altering experience. I felt ashamed that my privileged education and countless hard-earned accolades had not instilled in me the fundamental quality of acceptance.
It led me to shed my ignorance and view these people not simply as case studies but as individuals.
I have learnt first hand that our acceptance alone will help Pakistan's persecuted transgender community survive the damage that has been inflicted on them.
—Photos provided by author