Updated March 05, 2017


The delicate side of a turbulent life: Salma and Barkha know the right pose. — Photo by Hashim Bin Rashid
The delicate side of a turbulent life: Salma and Barkha know the right pose. — Photo by Hashim Bin Rashid

One Friday night in January, Neeli Rana received a phone call from a fellow transgender Muskan who sounded anxious and edgy. “I have this feeling of dread creeping up my skin,” she said to Neeli. “Should I come over to where you are?” Neeli gave her the address but only a minute later Muskan backed out, saying she’d be alright.

A day later, Muskan was found stuffed in a washing tub, her legs crossed like a bow, her arms splayed outside. Her throat had been slit with a 3-inch broad knife, and blood splattered on the walls and floor of her cramped mosaic bathroom. There had been no forcible entry so the suspect was in all probability an acquaintance.

The murder has still not been completely solved.

Yet when Neeli Rana went to the police with information, instead of helping her, they turned the tables on her and blamed the lifestyle of the ‘khwajasiras’ for attracting trouble. “Abuse and harassment by the police in any form is no secret for us,” says Neeli Rana, who is sitting in her Lahore office of the Khwajasira Society (KSS) that works for spreading awareness among the transgender and intersex community about health issues like HIV and hepatitis. The office is a decrepit building of rough red bricks, situated off a very busy main road. Every time heavy traffic passes by, it vibrates and resounds as if an earthquake is imminent.

The KSS office is a bare bones type of place – faded blue paint on the walls, some of it peeling in places where seepage has invaded and very little furniture. A dusty computer sits on a small desk in one of the rooms. There are a couple of posters plastered on the wall for HIV programs and other health campaigns by the UN and the Punjab government. On top of a steel cupboard are two huge cartons full of contraceptives sent by the UN. But mostly there is the rough, ad hoc manner in which everything has been kept, as if things must be accessible at all times for everyone.

The scenes capture the forsaken state that the transgender find themselves in: orphaned, ignored, and cast adrift.

Pummelled by the police

For old-time khawaja sirahs (or transgender as they call themselves), it would have sounded like a pipedream at one time to have their very own organisation addressing their health issues. Yet this is exactly what KSS does. For the workers at KSS, their work is integral in protecting their people because “no one else will.” The protection they seek is often from those who ought to protect them in the first place: the police.

Neeli, who is the field supervisor, is tall and well-built. She sits in her office dressed simply, her hair tied back, not a trace of make-up on her face. She is also busy answering phones and maintaining liaison with community members. Some people call her for help, others call to show their concern.

Protesting for justice in the case of Muskan’s murder, a group of transgender had stood for some time at the busy Charing Cross intersection on February 13, 2017. Right after they left, a suicide bomb ripped through the area, leaving over 13 dead, including some high-ranking police officials.

They are still shattered from the incident, shocked at having left unscathed. Not knowing all the facts, they even believe that they may have been the intended target.

“Who knows? Anything can happen to us,” says Jannat Ali who has just entered the room to search for something. Among her comrades, Jannat stands out as the most educated: a gold medallist MBA, who came out of the closet only after finishing her education and was eventually accepted by her parents. Unlike most transpersons, she lives happily with her family.

Because of the blast the subject inevitably turns towards the violence they face.

Along with Muskan, the khwajasira community was also protesting the murder of Imli. They allege that Imli was killed by her boyfriend whom she was living with. A few days later, they discovered that Imli’s parents had forgiven the boy, probably in exchange for blood-money. “Most families prefer to keep these cases hidden,” explains Neeli, citing the fear of their reputation being tarnished. “They believe it is simply more convenient to take the money and move on, instead of pressing for justice.”

It is our Gurus who raise us and protect us, yet CNICs want to see the father’s name who has thrown us out on to the streets — why? And when we ourselves are telling them our sex, who is anyone to ask for a medical certificate?”

But where the police is concerned, hate crimes against khwajasiras are simply not properly investigated and no investigation officer is assigned to crimes committed against them. In fact there aren’t even proper records of how many murders or other violent crimes have taken place because the police tend to note the sex of the victim or survivor as that of a man and not a khwajasira.

“We have always faced disrespect and even abuse from the police, particularly from junior officers,” says Jannat. “It is rare for us to be treated like humans by them. In this instance, we had issues with how the investigation was proceeding in both cases of murder.”

Instead of helping them out by collecting clues and evidence, the police put pressure on the community by telling them to bring forward the suspects themselves. “It is also common that whatever the crime is, we are told that it is because of our ‘immoral lifestyle’ that we are the targets. Just imagine, whatever crimes that a woman faces, we probably face more.”

Bijli who lives in a dera (community) with others in a squalid area near Model Town says that the police are their very first aggressors. “With the police we feel even more scared than we do with regular citizens.” Bijli says that recently, she witnessed a transgender being beaten up by a cop with a baton. “It was all happening in broad daylight,” she says, recounting how the cop had told the transgender beggar to ‘move away’ from the traffic signal and stop bothering the public. But at the same time, the women at the same spot were ‘allowed’ to beg.

“It is normal for the police to just call us one day — frequent visits to the station has led to the police knowing our numbers — and summon us to the station on the pretext of having ‘something important to discuss’,” explains Bijli. “And when we do go there, it ends up in physical or sexual violence at the most, but most times, it is an excuse for extorting money from us.”

Her friend Laila, a 34-year-old transgender, says she was picked up by the police once and taken to the station. The policemen were drunk (it was late night) and she was gang-raped. Her money was taken away too. Then they decided to leave her on the roadside, only to be rescued later by two men on a bike.

Without the glare of judgment or bias, Neeli Naz (right) and her guru Gogi find a moment of peace at home
Without the glare of judgment or bias, Neeli Naz (right) and her guru Gogi find a moment of peace at home

Lewd gazes

Much of the violence that khwajasiras experience occurs in the public sphere, they say, often by young men on the streets. Much of it happens during the course of their work, such as ‘toli’ (begging) but particularly during sex work.

“We have gotten used to verbal harassment but then follows the physical and sexual violence, which is more horrific,” says Bijli. She has experienced innumerable mocks, taunts and even shouting, but she remembers every time someone has touched her in great detail. And there is great trauma associated with those memories: Bijli’s otherwise jovial demeanour turns to shame and embarrassment as she narrates an incident of a group of young men hurling stones at her. “They weren’t big rocks or anything, but they hurt deep inside.”

Her friend chimes in: “When there is nobody about, they have a free hand with us, pushing or shoving us, bullying us, provoking us. Sometimes they even pull down our shirts to see what our bodies look like.”

But when violence on the streets is combined with police complicity, the matter turns worse, especially for a transgender sex worker.

“They beat us with their batons, slap us, kick us. When we see them coming, we run like thieves as if it is we who have committed a crime,” says A*. “That makes them focus even more on us. They take money from us, and even sometimes ‘pimp’ us out. They order us to sit in an approaching car so we can be caught red-handed. They charge customers money and don’t even give us our share.”

In 2010, in Lahore, a group of khwajasiras were celebrating a ‘salgirah’ — a birthday celebration, but done with much more gusto than is commonly done by others. The khwajasiras claim that the police raided their party accusing them of doing drugs and drinking there and broke the party up.

“Even if we were drinking, which we were not, they have no business to just raid like that. Why don’t they start by raiding the houses of others who they know drink?” says Arzoo, who was at the party and is witness to the violence herself. “They packed us in their police van and were taking us to the police station when the khwajasiras whose birthday it was jumped off the police-van in fear,” she says. “The police shot her because of this attempted escape and she died.”

The case had been reported in the media at the time, and police alleged that the khwajasira had hurt himself fatally when he jumped off the van. But there was no autopsy carried out.

“They just break in accusing us of debauchery. They blame us for getting ‘married’ and so arrest us,” says Arzoo.

This kind of discrimination against the transgender has made them suspicious of the ‘others’. They do not fully reveal their problems unless prompted. Perhaps this is also why their dera serves as an emotional safety net. When a transgender is cast out by her family, when there are no friends on the outside, and when a violent incident takes place, it is the community that comes to heal raw hurt. And when they live collectively, they are obviously less vulnerable to violence. They prefer to stick together but many often also live separately in twos and threes sharing a flat. Very few continue living with their families.

Contrary to popular belief, sex work isn’t the only option to make ends meet
Contrary to popular belief, sex work isn’t the only option to make ends meet

Betrayed by blood

But for a transgender, the agony of being different often begins at home.

For Neeli Rana who was born in Panju village near Kahna district (a few hours away from Lahore), it was hurtful to see her own father play with his other children, but never even touch Neeli. She prefers to keep her birth name anonymous.

“I saw my other siblings go to school but not me,” she recalls. “At that age, how would I know there was something odd about me? Then it became known that my father and others often planned of ‘doing away’ with me.”

She remembers the fateful night when, at the age of 10, her mother called her and told her to take some money and leave. “Go wherever you would like to go,’ she told me tearfully,” says Neeli. “I just remember being a very confused little child getting off the bus at Nawaz Sharif Park in Lahore. A transgender there saw me and helped me get food. Then she took me to her dera where I lived for some time but she was a sex worker and I felt scared of all the strange men there so she gave me to another community. There I learnt dancing and other performing arts as a profession and lived there under my Guru Bali for the next 18 years.”

Neeli did later trace her mother and brothers and now visits them often. But in the same breath, she knows that her mother and she have grown apart, and her brothers only tolerate her because she helps them out financially from time

to time. “Our [transgender] relations [with our families] are only built on money,” she says. “A transgender I knew was cast out by her family because she went mentally unstable and could not earn anymore. They literally kicked her out of the house after publicising it in a paper and now she is homeless and broken hearted.”

But she still sees her nephews and nieces, always taking with her another ‘chaila’ (follower). “I want to expose them to our kind, because if ever they need us they should not feel scared of us,” she says. “It’s the way I educate them.”

Harassment of transgender on the street is normalised to a large extent
Harassment of transgender on the street is normalised to a large extent

Identity and belonging

Fifty-year-old Khalida, who died a few years ago, took with her the simple yearning desire to own an ID card, and to have a bank account. Because she never knew where her birth family was, she never acquired either. In fact, for khwajasiras who have lost touch with their families, identity is a serious issue.

“The National Database & Registration Authority (Nadra) has a section for us which describes us as ‘mard khwajasira’ or ‘aurat khwajasira’ [male or female transgender],” says Neeli. “But it’s useless for the many who have been cast out or lost contact with their families. Nadra only wants blood relations on CNICs but we prefer to give our Gurus’ names rather than our fathers.”

The year 2009 was a watershed moment for the transgender as they were finally recognised as a third sex and a third column was inserted in Nadra records to denote this change. Subsequently, in 2011, the Supreme Court of Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry barred the constitution of medical boards to verify the sex of the transgender concerned. Chaudhry had instructed Nadra to amend its laws and refer to them as ‘she-males’ instead of eunuchs.

“It is our Gurus who raise us and protect us, yet CNICs want to see the father’s name who has thrown us out on to the streets — why?” says Neeli. And she argues that it is even more demeaning when they are asked for a medical certificate to ascertain their sex. “When we ourselves are telling them our sex, who is anyone to ask for a medical certificate?” asks Neeli, shifting to an angry tone. She adds that when she was travelling via Dubai, (she was part of a theatre troupe) she was stopped from entering because her ID card said mard khwajasira (male khwajasira).

“We cannot have a proper census – which is the need of the day – to ascertain our demographics. We cannot even enter Lahore Cantt area without an ID card,” she says. “We cannot rent a house, we can’t get jobs. We have endless problems.”

Because of the ID cards issues, says academic Ayman Bucha, they cannot travel easily either. Bucha has researched the khwajasira community extensively and she notes that if the transgender want to travel, they have to have a male ID. “For many it is easier to navigate between male and female in everyday life because having a CNIC does not necessarily help them,” she says. Ayman further argues that besides the problem of CNICs and violence, public place discrimination is rampant on the pretext of them being ‘napaak’ or unholy.

“It often happens in places where there are queues for men and women but none for khwajasiras. The women start shouting about feeling unsafe with them,” she explains. “Trans people say that the men tease them. Even in new projects such as the Metro Bus, they are not welcome because it has no section for the transgender. In the men’s section, they are groped and usually it is more violent with them than it is with women because the men consider them males.”

Inaccessibility to health services is a big reason why the khwajasira community is not aware of HIV and other diseases. They are forced to indulge in unsafe sexual practices sometimes because of the clients, some times because of lack of awareness. And then when they fall ill there is very little access to health services.

Bucha concurs. “A khwajasira who was suffering from HIV could not find any space in any hospital in Lahore,” she says. “She spent weeks sleeping outside the hospital on the pavement because she was told to leave.”

A health clinic that does provide them health services exists but many khwajasiras do not know of it. Its whereabouts are not advertised for fear of any kind of threat. This clinic also offer sex procedures because usually doctors do not perform them on the transgender. “Therapies are usually very costly so many cannot opt for that. They have unsafe home surgeries of castration, which may or may not be fatal for the patient,” says Ayman. “It is like abortion done by quacks.”


Many transgender sex workers are known to have sex with clients who use injections for drug use. They are therefore at multiple risks, including sexually transmitted diseases. “There are those who want to use a condom but their client refuses saying it is like paddling in water with your socks on,” says Gogi who is based in Heera Mandi. She does not engage in any sex work herself but knows of many who do.

Even knowing these risks, many continue to work for sex saying they do not know any other skill. “The usual rate is around 300 rupees but someone can even give 1,000 rupees,” says Bubbli, another transgender, who like Gogi doesn’t provide sex services but knows others from her own dera in Heera Mandi. “I myself have a regular girya [friend] who comes and sleeps with me and I do not want anyone else. I have never been interested in sex services,” she says.

Bubbli herself is a beggar who visits neighbourhoods to ask for money. But after walking for years in the same neighbourhoods, one day a man slapped her and asked her to leave. Other residents did come to defend her at that.

But begging khwajasiras must be careful they don’t tread into the territory of another group. “The khwajasiras who beat drums and collect ‘vaddayi’ [token money] for the birth of children, or weddings, are highly aggressive and territorial,” says Bubbli. “They once put hot coins on another khwajasiras back and neck and tortured her with electric current. She is still alive but has never gone there again.”

But she waves aside the myth that any group of transgender, even those who take vaddayi, ever abduct children to make them their own. “How can we force someone’s sexuality on them? Abandoned or misfit children themselves come to us.”

The transgender are a proud people who have been at battle with many inner conflicts. To others they never show little else but resilience. And they try to live life to its fullest.

“We believe in spreading happiness and colour,” says Neeli Rana, “so our names should also reflect what our hearts are like — colourful.”

The writer is a member of staff. She tweets @XariJalil

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 5th, 2017