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Khwaja sara, hijra, and the Struggle for Rights in Pakistan



Drawing upon interviews with individuals in Pakistan who cannot be identified as heterosexual or be contained by the gender binary, I argue that in recent years post-colonial legacies of colonial laws have been challenged in Pakistan in ways that suggest a complicated relationship among sexuality, gender, and modernity. I draw upon Partha Chatterjee's notion of political society to situate this relationship. As such, I seek to strengthen prior discussions located in India and Pakistan. Further, this article challenges the problematic assumptions in mainstream queer politics that Muslim societies are static and ahistorical assumptions that appear to assume progress and struggle for sexual rights to be a Western attribute. In so doing, I extend earlier critiques arguing for a more complex understanding of the rule of non-normative sexualities in Muslim societies and suggest that colonial policies that regulated and criminalized the more fluid forms of sexuality in Muslim societies were incorporated in the imperial project of civilizing non-European cultures. The stability of colonial policies regarding sexuality was challenged in 2009 when the Pakistani state gave political recognition to trans* communities, identifying them as citizens of a modern state. These changes, I argue, pave the way for a potential shift from the fluid sexuality and irreverence that khwaja sara are usually associated with middle-class norms of respectability and encouragement towards assimilation into the social order.



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2 Massad, J., Desiring Arabs, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007 ; Najmabadi, A., Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2005 ; Amer, S., Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2008 .

3 S. Chatterji, ‘Eunuchs of India: deprived of human rights’, Human Rights Defence: Shielding Humans from Humans, 18 August 2008, [accessed 8 February 2017]; Taparia, S., ‘Emasculated bodies of hijras: sites of imposed, resisted and negotiated identities’, Indian Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, 2011, pp. 167–84.

4 Nanda, S., Neither Man, Nor Women, the Hijras of India, Belmond, California, 1999 ; Reddy, G., With Respect to Sex, Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India, Yoda Press, New Delhi, 2007 .

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6 Zwilling, L. and Sweet, M., ‘Like a city ablaze’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 6, no. 3, 1996, pp. 359–84; Nanda, Neither Man, Nor Women.

7 Unpacking these terms is beyond the scope of this discussion.

8 The term ‘trans*’ has currency in the online queer community and is an umbrella term: ‘The asterisk is representative of the widest notation of possible trans* identities. Aimed at promoting unification among gender variant communities by placing focus on gender transgression over specific identity labels, genders, or bodies’. See Trans, Genderqueer, and Queer Terms Glossary, [accessed 8 February 2017). Trans* helps to provide a similar umbrella term for the myriad articulations of trans individuals in Pakistan and India.

9 Reddy, With Respect to Sex; Nanda, Neither Man, Nor Women.

10 Marmon, S., Eunuchs and Sacred Boundaries in Islamic Society, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995 .

11 Vanita, R., Gender, Sex and the City, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2012 .

12 Chatterjee, I., Gender, Slavery and the Law in Colonial India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999 .

13 Foucault, M., The History of Sexuality: Vol. 1, Penguin, London, 1976 .

14 Vanita, Gender, Sex and the City.

15 Preston, L., ‘A right to exist: eunuchs and the state in nineteenth-century India’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 21, no. 2, 1987, pp. 371–87.

16 Government of Punjab, India, Indian Penal Code Act No XLV of 1860, 1860, [accessed 8 February 2017].

17 British Library, Criminal Tribes Act XXVII, 1871, V/8/42.

18 See Judicial Criminal Department, North West Provinces, 17 August 1867, BL/IOR/483.62 and Major General Chamberlain, Political Agent Gwalior, Creation date April 1869–June 1869, Coll 183/BL/IOR/PS/656.

19 Vanita, Gender, Sex and the City.

20 Vanita, R. and Kidwai, S., ‘Introduction: modern Indian materials’, in Same-Sex Love in India, Vanita, R. and Kidwai, S. (eds), Palgrave, New York, 2000, pp. 191217 .

21 S. Kidwai, ‘Introduction: medieval materials in Persio-Urdu tradition’, in Vanita and Kidwai, Same-Sex Love in India, pp. 107–25.

22 Khan, S. Ahmed, ‘Precis of letter’, Summaries of Replies Submitted Regarding Proposed Criminal Tribes Act, British Library, April 1871, BL/IOR/PJ/5/14.

23 Jalal, A., Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2008 .

24 A. Ahmad, ‘Mirzanama’, Iran, vol. 13, 1975, pp. 99–110, [accessed 8 February 2017].

25 Faiz Baksh, M., Tarikh-i-Farah-Baksh, translated by W. Hoey as Memoirs of Faizabad: 1722–1781/2, New Books Co., Lucknow, 1889, reprinted 2004.

26 al Gazali, M., The Socio-Political Thought of Shah Waliullah, Adam Publishers, Delhi, 2001 .

27 Page, D., The Indian Muslims and the Imperial System of Control, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1982 ; Sandhau, A. H., ‘Reality of divide and rule in British India’, Pakistan Journal of History and Culture, vol. 30, no. 1, 2009, pp. 6180 .

28 Preston, ‘A right to exist’, p. 376.

29 Reddy, With Respect to Sex, p. 100.

30 Pamment, C., ‘Hijraism: jostling for a third space in Pakistani politics’, The Drama Review, vol. 54, no. 2, pp. 2950 .

31 Rehman, N., Chaudhary, I., and Shah, S. K. I., ‘Socio-cultural behaviour of hijras of Lahore’, Journal of Pakistan Medical Association, vol. 59, no. 6, pp. 380–4; Khan, A. A., Rehan, N., Qayyum, K., and Khan, A., ‘Correlates and prevalence of HIV and sexually transmitted infections among Hijras (male transgenders) in Pakistan’, International Journal of STDs and AIDS, vol. 19, no. 12, 2008, pp. 817–20.

32 Chatterjee, P., The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World, Columbia University Press, New York, 2004 ; P. Chatterjee, ‘Democracy and economic transformation in India’, Economic and Political Weekly, 19 April 2008.

33 Baqi, S., Shah, S. A., Baig, M. A., et al., ‘Seroprevalence of HIB, HBV and syphilis and associated risk behaviours in male transvestites (Hijras) in Karachi, Pakistan’, International Journal of STDs and AIDS, vol. 10, no. 5, 1999, pp. 300–4; Khan et al., ‘Correlates and prevalence’; Bokhari, A., Nizamani, N. M., Jackson, D. J., Rehan, N. E., Rahman, M., Muzaffar, R., Mansoor, S., Raza, H., Qayum, K., Girault, P., Pisani, E., and Thaver, I., ‘HIV risk in Karachi and Lahore, Pakistan: an emerging epidemic in injecting and commercial sex networks’, International Journal of STDs & AIDS, vol. 18, no. 7, 2007, pp. 486–92.

34 Chatterjee, Politics of the Governed, 2004.

35 Chatterjee, ‘Democracy and economic transformation’.

36 Ibid., p. 57.

37 D. Walsh, ‘Harassed, intimidated, abused: but now Pakistan's hijra transgender minority finds it voice’, The Guardian, 29 January 2010, [accessed 8 February 2017].

38 N. Iqbal, ‘Help on way for eunuchs of Pakistan’, OneWorld South Asia, 17 June 2009, [accessed 8 February 2017].

39 Q. Iqbal, ‘Interview’, Lahore, February 2014.

40 Supreme Court of Pakistan, Constitution Petition No 43 of 2009, p. 2, [accessed 8 February 2017].

41 B. Rana, ‘Interview’, Lahore, February 2014.

42 A. Minnuah, ‘Report on khwajasara’, unpublished manuscript, 2010.

43 Rana, ‘Interview’.

44 A. Boby, ‘Interview’, Islamabad, Pakistan, March 2014.

45 Boby, ‘Interview’.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid.

48 A. Khaki, ‘Interview’, Islamabad, Pakistan, March 2014.

49 An International Bar Association Human Rights report, ‘A long march to justice: a report on judicial independence and integrity in Pakistan’, 5 September 2009, p. 6,* [accessed 2 March 2017].

50 NAZ Foundation v. Government of NCT of Delhi, 2 July 2009, [accessed 8 February 2017]. This decision was overturned by the Supreme Court of India. See N. Bhowmick, ‘Homosexuality is criminal again as India's top court reinstates ban’, 11 December 2013, [accessed 8 February 2017].

51 Khwaja sara are frequently referred to as transgender (TG for short), used within the non-governmental organization system in Pakistan.

52 Rana, ‘Interview’.

53 Pamment, ‘Hijraism’.

54 Dunya Television, FrontLine: Almas Boby and Rana Sanaullah, Punjab Law Minister, 10 November 2010, [accessed 8 February 2017].

55 Ibid.

56 GIA, [accessed 8 February 2017].

57 Mahram is an Arabic word that refers to an unmarriageable kin with whom sexual intercourse would be considered incestuous. The Saudi state, which regulates access to the haj, has decreed that women under 45 cannot perform haj without a mahram.

58 Chatterjee, ‘Democracy and economic transformation’, p. 58.

59 Hum Log, ‘Gender on political pitch’, 13 April 2014, [accessed 2 March 2017].

60 Tunic and trousers worn by many male and female South Asians.

61 To Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth; He creates what he wills. He gives to whom He wills female [children], and He gives to whom He wills males (Verse 49) and Or He makes them [both] males and females, Sura 42, Verse 50, Qur'an.

62 GEO Television, Aik Din GEO Kay Sath (One Day with GEO), 19 April 2011, [accessed 8 February 2017].

63 Khan, S., Zina, Transnational Feminism and the Moral Regulation of Pakistani Women, University Press of British Columbia, Vancouver, 2006 .

64 Vanita and Kidwai, Same-Sex Love in India.

65 Iqbal, ‘Interview’.

66 Sara Gill, ‘Interview’, Karachi, Pakistan, April 2014.

67 Saima, ‘Interview’, Lahore, Pakistan, January 2014.


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