When nothing could stop Karachi's transgender community

From Khayaban-e-Shahbaz to Sachal Goth to Baldia Town, the trans community was done with this triptych of violence.
Published October 2, 2017

Imagine a street, bustling with activity. Men and women donning their best clothes and jewelry and gleaming wristwatches behind the dimly-lit windows of a promenade of restaurants – Lal’s Patiserrie and Bella Vita and Il Posto. Others exiting shops, bags tucked under their arms, disappearing into their cars.

The traffic is mercurial. Little boys scurry through it, tapping on angry windshields with their wipers. Somewhere around the corner, the cries of the fruit-vendors are still persistent, and a girl is selling faded roses.

This is the façade of the Shahbaz Commercial Area, one of Karachi’s poshest localities. The night is one of the few leading up to Eid, and so, it is natural that people should shop and dine and make way for celebration.

The restaurant-goers, numbering some dozen every night, are convinced that the picturesque myopia of the area should be maintained.

Venture no further into the lanes and the by-lanes, where, in the earliest hours of August 30th, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal Shahbaz noises.

At the time, not a soul in sleeping Shahbaz heard them – one pistol fire, newspaper reports told the next day, went through Chanda’s head, killing the transgender woman on spot.

This was not the first time that Chanda had frequented this locality. In fact, she, along with her friends Vicky and Sajjad, was a regular denizen of the Shahbaz streets, where she had been begging since the day her family disowned her.

It was also not the first time that Chanda had seen the face of the killer. No, he had looked at her through the tinted windows of his white Vigo, opening it occasionally to hurl eggs and water at the group begging at the signal.

To members of the transgender community that I would later speak with, this sight was not an unfamiliar one, but a nightly routine everyone can recount:

Always a white vehicle turns up, sometimes a Toyotta Corolla, at other times a Prado, bearing the faces of sniggering men and their private security guards.

Complaints to the local traffic police, one is not surprised to discover, went unheeded. And Chanda’s life continued as usual, beset by harassment and humiliation.

Until that night, when the anger boiling in her finally surfaced, and her retaliation came in the form of verbal abuses directed at the men. That retaliation was silenced with a bullet.

The day following Chanda’s murder, social media was taken in by a storm. Newspapers ran disparate versions of the story.

In one version, Chanda had interacted with her murderer in a ‘personal capacity’ before.

In another, she had sat in his car before the argument that took her life ensued.

In a third version, she had tried to rob them, which led the men to shoot her in self-defence.

One could not tell what was more appalling, these miniscule deflections, intended as it were to imply that Chanda was not murdered in cold blood, or the comments section, where people called into question her presence in the area at that late hour in the first place.

Naturally, our well-meaning Facebook slacktivists didn’t mean to offend anyone, but only make a banal display of their class privilege, and prove to us, lo and behold, that they have an opinion.

Of course, everyone in Pakistan has an opinion on matters they know nothing about. It’s the national bourgeois pastime, having an opinion.

The SHO Aurangzeb Khattab, of course, has many opinions of his own. Only a cursory reading of him will reveal the degrees to which he has exceeded the others in his shameless display of what class privilege looks like.

Toying with the 9mm shell casings discovered at the crime scene with his clumsy, little fingers, he assumed the air of Sherlock Holmes and commented:

“We believe that the issue was not only the egg throwing but there was something more which they are hiding. We believe that the victims knew the culprits.”

Except that Mr Khattab is no Sherlock Holmes; it's disgustingly obvious when it comes to his biases. With blatant transphobia, the police discounted the credibility of Vicky and Sajjad, Chanda’s friends who were with her that night, and instead, accused them “of concealing evidence”.

The periphrastic nature of his investigation premises itself on victim-blaming. It comes with a misplaced assumption that all transgender men and women are either sex workers, high-end dancers, or thieves.

And since they already choose to lead 'immoral' lifestyles, dwelling within unsafe territories, they cannot be considered ideal victims; they are perhaps as suspect as their victims.

This explanation creates the mistaken assumption of consent between the perpetrator and the victim, and acts as a blatant refusal to recognise the complex ways in which economic realities govern the choices of the transgender community.

Discriminated against at home, at school, and in mainstream workplaces, even the most pin-brained minds can tell that on the night of August 30th, Chanda and her friends weren't having fun begging.

When the world was busy feeling entitled to an opinion, far away from the comfortable myopia of Khayaban-e-Shahbaz where Mr Khattab toyed away with evidence, five men had already broken into the house of Sapna, on the other side of the city, and gang-raped her chailas.

Not a full day had passed since Chanda’s murder when a short video clip shared by Sapna, a transgender resident of Sachal Goth, began floating around on social media. The alarming faces of the bruised victims, as they huddled on the floor, visible; their ravaged hair sticking out, their clothes torn apart.

In the background, a couch with torn upholstery can be seen. Sapna’s camera scans the interior of a room which is now only broken glass and disheveled sheets.

Seated in the centre is herself, beating her chest in mourning: “Look what they’ve done to my children,” she repeats.

Within a few hours of its posting, Sapna’s video went viral and she began receiving phone calls from members of the transgender community across the city.

By this time, I had already seen it on Facebook, albeit with much difficulty, and rang Ihsan Ali Khoso, the chairman of the Petarian Human Rights Organization, the mother-wing of the Sindh Transgender Network.

“Vicky and Sajjad cannot meet anyone,” said his voice through the receiver, “Their guru is extremely concerned about their safety given with how the proceedings have taken place. Great fear has been instilled into them and the police doesn’t want them to speak to anyone. They’ve left the city for some time.”

“What about Sapna?” I inquire, anxiously.

“After their video went viral, she and her chailas also started receiving threats. For speaking up. They were no longer safe in Sachal Goth. We’ve relocated them to a temporary hiding place until matters cool off. I can take you there.”

Post-Eid holidays, Mr Khoso and Shehzadi Rai, member of the Advisory Board of the Sindh Transgender Network, pick me up from Karachi University.

On the condition that I keep the location of Sapna’s new home anonymous for security reasons, they drive me to an area on the margins of Karachi, which, in this rainy weather and traffic, takes forever to reach.

As our car traverses the margin, I am immediately aware that this margin separates many things: the façade of Shahbaz from its underbelly, the Facebook slacktivists from the transgender who was shot, wealth from poverty, morality from immorality.

The margins of Karachi are not gated. Mr Khoso leads us through a narrow alley to a ramshackle one-room shelter, which Sapna has learnt to call ‘refuge’ in the last few days.

The room is cramped with a double-bed where she and her chailas have spent the last few sleepless nights.

On the paint-chipped wall is a portrait of her with another chaila, one of the few prized possessions she managed to pack in her hurried departure from her home: two smiling faces that may never smile again.

“It was a gift from a friend,” she says, reminiscent. “We were all moving. How could I leave them there? They’re family, aren’t they?”

It is hard to imagine, that despite the violence breeding in their lives, Sapna and her chailas have managed to keep themselves together without breaking apart, not to mention that Sapna’s third chaila has just run out of the room, and returns shortly, bearing two cans of Coke in a dangling plastic shopper.

Sapna smiles at me and pours me a drink. Their unwavering hospitality in the face of tragedy is an unimaginable thing.

When asked about the events of Thursday night, Sapna curiously begins with her childhood. I realise: you can't hate the tree and not its roots.

“I have a very faint memory of my childhood home,” she begins her story. “It was a small house in Shah Faisal colony. I was bullied at school and called a ‘teesri dunya’."

"There was a world between our legs that neither men nor women could understand. When my parents discovered that world, they told me to hide it."

"I felt very isolated then. It was no longer possible to hide from your own body. To what extent can you hide?"

"It was from that day onwards, when I decided to come out, that my family became estranged from me. I shambled on the streets for days and nights, poor and homeless, until I discovered my guru, and my grand-guru. They raised me."

"You know, us Khwaja-siras, some of us never saw our parents – we were given away at birth. We will never have any children. We have no families. Our only families make up of our gurus and our chailas. Some ties are more important than blood."

Now Sapna is a guru herself, with four chailas under her wing.

“But that night,” she says with a note of grief, “they discovered that I was not home. They came calmly at first and knocked at the door. ‘Is your guru home?’ one of them asked, and my chaila replied, ‘No. Our guru has gone out.’ When they heard this, they began beating the door hard, asking to be let in.”

“They were beating hard on the door,” says Muskan, one of Sapna’s chailas who was gang-raped that night. "'If not all of us, they said, at least let my brother-in-law in. He’s about to marry my sister, but before he does, ay, let him have some fun with you.'"

"I tried reasoning with them, begging them to leave, but I was only one and they were five heavy-weighted men. They finally managed to break the door down and came in. I was completely shocked to see their faces, so familiar. I knew every one of them."

The five men who gang-raped Sapna’s chailas were residents of the Sachal Goth, living only a street away from Sapna’s house.

"We were their neighbours," continues Muskan. "I had even been to their bungalows and their wives and sisters had given us alms and supported us."

"I told them we respected them, that we were indebted to them, but that we couldn’t invite them in. At this point, [one of them] got really angry, and slapped me so hard that I succumbed to the floor."

This, however, was not the only time that men had banged the door of Sapna’s home. Their close proximity to each other made them regular victims of the men’s perversions.

"Yes," adds Sapna, "they had come for my chailas in the past too. Luckily I was home then. In my presence, no one could lay a hand on my chaila. I have battled with many men before. If Allah has given them a pair of hands, he’s given them to me too."

"When they came last time, I fought with them relentlessly. I went outside and banged all the shutters of the shops and people’s homes. A big scene was created."

"But can you believe? They returned shortly with the police, and accused us of blackmailing them for money. They bribed the police off and the case was shut."

"Only I am aware of how that slap felt," resumes Muskan. "No media report, no piece of writing, can ever attempt to comprehend how it felt."

While mustering up the courage to recount what happened next, Muskan breaks down. And while I try to grapple with what she might possibly be experiencing, as Sapna tries to console her, I fail.

I fail, because, as Arundhati Roy’s recent words tell us, that “In Urdu, all things, not just living things but all things – carpets, clothes, books, pens, musical instruments – had a gender. Everything was either masculine or feminine, man or woman.”

Everything except Muskan, and her pain. Yes, there are words. Khawaja-Sara. Aziyyat. “But two words do not make a language.”

In a language that I cannot understand, that we should never claim to understand, or feel entitled to, for we have never experienced it, Sapna, who has joined Muskan’s wailing, tells me:

"When I heard what had happened to my chailas, the earth beneath my feet disappeared. Imagine the sorrows of a mother, and you’ll know what I’m talking about."

"When I received the news over the phone, I was out, it was raining very hard,” she continues, wiping her tears with her dupatta."

"Under the downpour of monsoon rain I stood; my world had suddenly become very dark. My first thought was to reach them as quickly as possible. But the rain made things very difficult."

"When I saw them in that condition upon reaching home, I decided to make small video clips and put them online."

"Within an hour, support started pouring in from all corners of the city. I started receiving calls from many numbers – all of them encouraging me to go to the police. I felt very brave."

By this time, the day had begun to dawn. Sapna, motivated by the response she had gotten from social media, barged into the Sachal Goth Police Station with her mobile camera on.

"They’d never taken our complaints against these men seriously in the past. If they had, this gang-rape would’ve been avoided. I wanted to expose the callous attitude of the police to the world. I decided to record a second video for social media, determined to show whatever might happen in the police station."

"But the first instinct of the officers was to confiscate our mobile phones. They detained us for a number of hours, procrastinating the order of medico-legal formalities. Then they said we should call them tomorrow."

"When any rape victim goes into a police station to register an FIR,” Shahzadi Rai speaks up, who has been watching us converse all this while, quietly from her chair in one corner of the room, “the first and foremost duty of the police is to order a Medical Legal Examination."

"In the case of transgenders, the police detain them to the point where no medical proof is left. They efface the proofs. What rule of law is this?"

"Sometimes, they arrive at the crime sight and are bribed by the perpetrators, on spot. An FIR takes upto three days to be launched, and that too, only in rare cases, and after much protest."

The Sachal Goth Police, however, had not launched any FIR as of 3rd September. Four days had already lapsed since the event, and Sapna was starting to get anxious. The rapists were still roaming free.

"When I called the police the next day," resumes Sapna, "they said: ‘Do you know what the weather is like? The city is drowning and you want help at this hour! Saadi Town has been filled with water. We have more important matters to attend to. Call later. When I called them yet again the following day, they said: ‘here’s a solution. Why don’t you just protest on the street?’"

The remark came as the final blow for Sapna.

"I realised the police were mocking me," she says. "It was all one big joke for them. Everyone had isolated us one by one. First our families isolated us, rejected us at birth, driving us out of their homes."

"Then the people isolate us, who don’t let us into their schools, don’t give us jobs."

"After we are isolated from every single so-called respectable job, do they expect us not to go to the streets to beg?"

"And then they say: 'look, didn’t we say all along, how immoral the Khwaja-siras are.' It is the worst feeling, to be driven to the street, then to be judged for it."

There, Sapna’s final words brought to mind the work of Hannah Arendt, who, half-a-century ago, explored the function of isolation, which, while being a profoundly personal anguish, is also used by the political authorities, as well as by collective society, as an indispensable currency of power.

What sustains oppression, Arendt argues, is manipulation by isolation. Terror can rule absolutely, she tells us, only over those who are isolated. “Therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about.”

Now, terror rules over Sapna’s hopes for a better future. If indeed, isolating a community is used as both the chief weapon and the chief damage of a tyrannical institution, then the police had already set great precedent with their treatment of hers and Chanda's cases.

But we were wrong. Greater precedents had to be set. A few hours after Sapna barged into the police station to demand justice, some 30 kilometres away, in Baldia Town, a notorious man had already kidnapped Payal Rani, and taken her to his private residency for a violence of unthinkable proportions.

Two is a coincidence. Three is a pattern. When shortly after Sapna’s case, Payal Rani was kidnapped by an SUV drift-racing around the area with the intention of kidnapping trans individuals, panic broke out.

A press release was issued by the Petarian Human Rights Organization and the Sindh Transgender Network, describing the three events – Chanda’s murder, Muskan’s rape, and Payal Rani’s kidnapping – as the beginning of a violent crime-wave that needed to be immediately managed.

Shahzadi Rai referred to the crimes as a “Hit List,” through which a mass sexual cleansing was taking place on the margins of Karachi, a situation which called for serious state intervention.

Meanwhile, Ihsan Ali Khoso appealed to the IG Sindh to circulate a notice immediately, instructing that all cases of crimes against the transgender community should be dealt with on a priority bases in the upcoming days.

The press released also warned that “if justice is not given, we will come out on the roads and the situation will become difficult.”

Debunking everyone who was taking the matter as a joke, Sara Gill, Pakistan’s first transgender doctor, went live on Facebook to shut some mouths. Known for her gutsy persona, she called for massive protests across the city against the authorities.

Also problematising the media’s role in justifying these acts by calling them minor acts of robbery, as well as questioning the collective attitude of society, which had done nothing except engage in victim-blaming, she referred to Payal Rani’s kidnapper as a “household name of terror in the transgender community.”

“For a long time,” said Gill, “this man is notorious in our community for kidnapping transgenders, gang-raping them with his men, shaving their heads, making their videos, and blackmailing them for money” – actions that, I would discover later, were only a microcosm of what the man is really capable of.

Described by representatives of the Sindh Transgender Network as an underground drug lord who manages a sizeable network of illegal drug trade from Baldia Town, his very name causes many in the transgender community to flinch: Shera.

None of the trans individuals actually believed that a complaint against Shera would actually ever be launched.

But with the wounds of Sapna and Chanda already fresh in their minds, on hearing that Nazimabad Police had refused to launch an FIR for a missing Payal Rani, an unexpected flight-or-fight response came:

Suddenly, series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations broke out outside the police station.

From suspecting Chanda’s friends for sex-work and theft, to minimising the severity of attack on Sapna, to their disbelief of Payal Rani’s story, from Khayaban-e-Shahbaz to Sachal Goth to Baldia Town, the transgender community was done with this triptych of violence.

Protest is an understatement for the kind of mass political organisation that was seen on 31st August outside the Nazimabad Police Station.

Refusing any kind of compromise, a number of trans individuals camped outside the police station for three days and three nights, going without food and water, refusing to leave until their voices were heard.

They slept outside the police station, on the roads, in the alleyways.

The policemen on duty did not take them seriously, until others poured in from across the city, and the numbers grew to several dozen by the second day.

It was not until the third day that some protestors threatened to remove their clothes and self-immolate if no action was taken that the police finally took note of the magnanimity of the situation.

At last, after three complete days of protest, an FIR was launched and an investigation team was sent to Baldia Town. Finally, Shera was caught.

Ruby, a transgender who was part of the demonstrations, agrees to speak to me over the phone on the condition that her name be changed.

"I was sitting on the stairs of the police station when they brought him in," she begins, describing what happened next in full-fledged detail.

"They walked him in through the police station gates, one policeman each holding him tight by the arms. Out of the looming darkness he appeared, he was right there! We couldn’t believe our eyes. That this man who had tortured us so much had finally been caught."

"There were cries everywhere: ‘Shera pakra gaya hai, Shera pakra gaya hai.’ There was relief. Some of us recoiled in horror, hiding behind trees and in the bushes and the darkness so he could not see us."

"We were scared that if he saw us there, he would register our faces in his memory and come back for us one day."

"But others, my bolder friends, they went ahead. A cacophony of voices, a sea of angry faces. The eyes of the Khawaja-saras were red. A boiling anger had taken control of their bodies. They went ahead, throwing stones at him, slapping him, cursing him."

"One of our trans friends was so brave that she went ahead and held him by the collar and screamed into his face: 'Look at my face,' she said, 'remember this face, I am not Payal Rani, I am not going to spare you. How you cut my locks, my pretty hair.'"

"But even as the police led him behind the bars, he roared back at her fearlessly. His eyes were bloodshot. I cannot forget that look. He yelled at her as they dragged him away: ‘Dekha lena main nikal k tere ghar aaunga.’ And she replied: ‘Nahi aoge tum.’"

"But I keep thinking to myself: what if he does? He’s a very powerful man, with many contacts. Maybe he’ll bribe them. If they release him, our community is gone. He saw me there that night. If he’s released, he’ll come straight for me. Will he come for me?”

I need not have answered Ruby’s question, because two weeks following my conversation with her, the police answered it for me. On the night of September 27th, they released Shera on bail.

And, as Ruby feared, Shera kept his promise. On the foreboding night of his release, the phones of members of the Sindh Transgender Network started beeping with death threats.

In their WhatsApp inboxes, a video had already appeared; the raging face of Shera announced: I have returned.

At three in the next morning, a panic-stricken Sindh Transgender Network released the alarming video for the public to see, announcing that “the person arrested for the violence on the transgender community is out of jail, and is threatening us openly. We demand immediate social security measures in Karachi.”

When I finally saw the clip, I could not decide what was more nerve-racking about it: the fact that Shera, the household name of terror, was free; the fact that the police had taken this affair lightheartedly; or the veracity with which the man was now declaring his revenge plans openly.

In the video, the night is lurid. There is the crescendo of rickshaws and motorcycles in the background. Then the men close in, one of them flinging his arm around Shera’s neck – a neck which has been adorned with garlands. Together, they make the ‘V’ sign with their fingers: Victory.

Then, for the first time, Shera’s voice is heard. “I am Shera Pathan,” he says. “I am Shera Pathan. From Orangi Town. I have been released. Now count your last hours. I am going to rape every single one of you; your mothers, your sisters. If you are in Orangi or Baldia Town, you are not going to escape from me, Inshallah. You cannot hide now.”

Following the reception of Shera’s video, the transgender community – and one could not expect otherwise – descended into complete neurosis. This video was the utter culmination of the police’s careless attitude.

The ‘V’ symbolised not only Shera’s victory, but the victory of a complacent, unsympathetic – and altogether lazy – system over a marginalised community.

Those living in Orangi and Baldia Town locked themselves inside their homes. Ruby’s phone was now permanently switched off.

Were it not for Anees Haroon of the National Commission for Human Rights, who in the thick of the night came to the rescue, and took up the issue urgently with the DIG Zulfiqar Larak and the CCPO Mushtaq Mahar, doom would have fallen. Thankfully, within hours of his bail, Shera was caught again.

As of September 30th, a month following Chanda’s murder, Shera is behind bars, and the transgender community has breathed a sigh of relief for now.

The anarchy of the last few days could have been easily prevented had the police understood the gravity of the situation, and not let the man out of their custody.

One is led to ask: are the authorities, then, always waiting for a situation to escalate before they will put their force to task?

When I ask myself this question, I am reminded of Ruby’s final words, which she had expressed over the phone with a tinge of pride and happiness:

"On the night of the protest, as the policemen carried Shera behind the bars, we started our ceremonial clapping: an announcement of our thirdness. Our thirdness had won. In the dim, blue hallways of the police station, the lights of many phone screens were blaring: we were making videos to mark our celebration."

"Then suddenly, some of us burst into chants and everyone followed: ‘Nazimabad Police, Zindabad! Nazimabad Police, Zindabad!'"

"Everywhere we were hailing them that night: you have chosen to do good. Long-live Nazimabad Police. You have chosen to do good.”

Ruby’s words bring to mind Hannah Arendt yet again, who tells us of “the sad truth”, that “most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be either good or evil.”

With the recapture of Shera, the police had finally shown their capacity to be good. The question everyone is now asking is: will they let him go once again and betray their own capacity for goodness?

Artwork by Zehra Nawab

Are you a minority in Pakistan and have been a victim of violence and discrimination? Share your story with us at blog@dawn.com