In 2009, the Pakistan Supreme Court officially recognized hijras as a third gender, allowing their third gender certification on their national ID and ability to vote in the election. However, this “monumental progress” is still far from achieving equality in the larger context. Trans citizens are still having difficulty to access education and employment in both private and public sectors. They even struggle to practice their own religion. Muslim are ought to perform a Hajj – a pilgrimage to their holy place of Mecca. However, to many muslim hijras in Pakistan, Mecca remains inaccessible due to their third gender ID not being recognised in Saudi Arabia.
Hijras in Pakistan were not always treated this poorly. There is a popular belief that hijras are deemed to have been direct cultural descendants of the court eunuchs of the Mughal era. It is said that during the Mughal era, parents wished for transgender children to be born into their families as they would be able to serve the women of the royal family since men were not allowed to serve women of the era and the only way to ensure their protection and well-being were to have transgender staff. Hence, the urdu word ‘Khawaja Sira’ was primarily a term for a profession and not a gender.
In order to bring about change and in order to advocate for the wellbeing of transgender people in Pakistan, Khawaja Sira Society (KSS) founded by Naz Male Health society under the Global Fund Grant Round 9 in 2010, is Pakistan’s first and biggest transgender community organization with 300,000 members, volunteers and associates across the country. KSS’ vision is to ensure that transgender individuals have the same rights that their cisgender counterparts are entitled to. KSS runs a comprehensive voluntary counseling and HIV test (VCT) for hijra communities. In Pakistan, HIV is well established among IDUs and epidemic is also spreading among transgender women – more than 6% in a few cities, including Lahore. 13,000 transgender have been registered in KSS’ VCT programmes.
The organisation also runs a literacy programme to reduce illiteracy among the hijras, in a hope to make them more educated and able to find adequate work to support themselves and their families. Anecdotal studies suggest that a high number trans people are banned from pursuing their education causing high illiteracy among hijras.
For many transgender women in Pakistan, due to discrimination and social exclusion, sex work has been the only available career to choose from. In order to bring about change in this scenario, KSS conducted several dialogues with the Pakistani government to demand a minimum job quota in the public for trans individuals. In a recent landmark achievement fueled by KSS, the Supreme Court declared an allotment of a 2% quota of teaching jobs for trans teachers.
KSS recently led a protest that made headlines against the social welfare department demanding for the protection of human rights. The protest sparked from the Social Welfare Council of Punjab’s ruling to detain all the homeless transgender people who lived and begged on the streets of Punjab. Their reasoning behind this ruling was their opinion that these homeless trans people were fake – which is far from the truth. Zehrish Khan, a monitoring officer with KSS sadly reflects that “We transgender people are not recognized as human beings in Pakistan. We don’t have rights, even the Supreme Court rulings are for Eunuchs and not transgender people. They don’t even know the difference.”
KSS and other trans rights supporters rallying for a protest against governmental ruling that disadvantages trans homeless persons.
On the topic of discrimination against transgender people in the country, the KSS representative states “Even transgender people here are unaware of their own rights. Those who are abused don’t speak up because they don’t even realize that they are going through violence and discrimination. They are so used to it, thinking it’s a normal path of their lives”
Despite the country being predominantly Islamic, KSS values diversity and boasts of a unique religious mixture of the trans Pakistani community as members. KSS believes that all hijras are equal regardless of their religion. The organisation promotes the celebration of all important religious holidays such as Eid, Christmas and even Hindu celebrated Navratri and Diwali by organising fun-filled activities that all members can take part in.
KSS faces many hurdles as they strive for the betterment of the hijra community in Pakistan. One of their main challenges is on doing outreach to new transgender communities (particularly those who are engaged in sex work), KSS outreach workers/volunteers tend to be avoided by hijra sex workers because of an old sentiment among sex-workers that transgender welfare communities such as KSS aim to stop them from profiting from their sex work – a notion that’s far from the truth. KSS aims to reach the sex-worker population as they have been successfully taking care of transwomen who are alcoholics and drug users. Alcohol and cocaine use is very common among the transgender community and KSS has dedicated themselves to track down these drug users, counsel them and rehabilitate them.