One day—Sarah remembers only that she was in the ninth grade—her parents had a male relative over for dinner. He took one look at her and sternly declared that her femininity would end up disgracing the household. “He said that with me being the way I was, no one would send marriage proposals for any of the girls in our family. I remember my father fell silent and that none of us finished our dinner that evening.”
Later that night, Sarah’s father and other relatives locked her in a room and beat her so badly that she asked them to put her out of her misery by taking her life. “With hindsight, I don’t blame anyone for what happened to me,” she says. “My father didn’t know any better. No one in our society has been taught what to do with a child that’s neither a boy nor a girl. The Urdu language is such a rich language, but it only has words for ‘son’ and ‘daughter.’ Even the language cannot tell me what I am to my parents.”
Sarah does not remember how many days passed, only that she feared she was about to be killed. Finally, she ran away from home hidden in the shroud of night. While she was walking down the street, a car stopped in front of her and the window rolled down. “I was a 14-year-old child with nowhere to go,” she says. “I had no choice but to get in that car.”
Sarah is unusually reticent about what happened next. “I won’t say that I wasn’t given food or shelter—because I was—but on what conditions and in exchange for what?” A few nights later, she was taken off the streets of central Karachi. Homeless and destitute, she had been wandering aimlessly for hours when she was approached by a group of transgender women who had been begging at a traffic light slightly further on. They took her in and arranged to have her placed with a guru—a community matriarch—who agreed to raise her and give her shelter. Community members told her that there were three possible ways that she could make a living: She could dance, beg, or become a prostitute. “I decided to dance at parties,” she says. “I think I’ve danced in every city and village in Pakistan.”
As harrowing as it was, Sarah Gill’s experience is not atypical for a transgender woman living on the Indian subcontinent. For centuries, intersex people—those who possess both male and female sexual organs—and those assigned male at birth who have subsequently identified as women have left their homes and joined third-gender communities, where they have been able to express their femininity without fear of persecution. These societies are organized around a guru-chela (master-disciple) system of kinship and have their own rules, rituals, and dispute resolution mechanisms. In Pakistan, the terms used to describe people who belong to these communities are varied and sometimes used interchangeably. Most common among them are the words hijra and khawaja sira, two historically distinct groups who are conflated in the modern day.
In precolonial India, the khawaja sira were enslaved eunuchs who were employed in a variety of bureaucratic, military, and scribal functions. According to the historian Jessica Hinchy, “they predominantly embodied a sort of noble masculinity, and they could aspire to quite high social standing.” Hijras, by contrast, embodied the feminine, working as vagrant performers who earned their living by blessing infants and newlyweds, and sometimes through prostitution.
Though not necessarily affluent, the hijra community certainly had a place in society. During Mughal rule, for instance, they were awarded various forms of state patronage, including cash grants, begging rights, and fertile tracts of land. “I would be hard-pressed to think of any instances in premodern India where people seem particularly concerned about there being various people we would now call ‘transgender,’” says Audrey Truschke, a historian who specializes in the Mughal period. “Whether it’s women dressing up as men, or intersex people or eunuchs, they’re around, they’re there, they have their own place in society, and that’s that.”
With British colonization, however, came a wave of persecution. Hijra communities were systematically targeted under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, with colonial administrators deeming them an “unclean” presence. “The British in the middle of the 19th century are trying to classify and know the Indian population in more intensified ways,” Hinchy says. “Groups that are difficult to classify and know are just anxiety-inducing for the British colonial government, and the hijra community are that in multiple ways. I mean, obviously their gender embodiment, but also they’re a disciple-based community, so their forms of kinship are not legible to the colonial state.”
Another part of this persecution, according to Hinchy, was the consolidation of binary concepts of gender in Europe and European empires in the 18th and 19th centuries. “Several historians have argued that it’s in the 18th century that you really get this solidification of a binary understanding of gender, which views ‘male’ and ‘female’ as two incommensurably different categories that are opposed to each other,” she says.
Perhaps the most prominent among these historians is Thomas Laqueur, who argues that what preceded this theory of binary opposites was a one-sex model in which the female body was seen as a failed or imperfect version of the male. Though problematic in its own right, this way of thinking about gender was necessarily more flexible than the two-sex model that supplanted it. “Certainly by the 19th century, that sort of binary understanding of gender has really solidified,” Hinchy says. “And it’s not just that that gets exported to the colonies, because the ways in which British understandings of gender and sexuality were shaped through the process of becoming an imperial power is also part of that history.”
In present-day Pakistan, a great deal of khawaja sira activism centers on the deleterious effects of this colonial legacy. Even the use of the term khawaja sira, which has been adopted by legislators, activists, and community members as an all-encompassing category for third-gender people living in Pakistan, was in some sense made necessary because of the way the word hijra had come to be used as a slur.
Dr. Mehrub Awan, a khawaja sira activist based in Karachi, believes that the injunction to define one’s own gender is the result of cultural imperialism. “The question is one of modernity and Westernism, and the hegemony of the Western philosophy of sexuality,” she says. “It forces us indigenous Eastern peoples to position ourselves in a framework of Western sexuality so that our realities are consumable for a modern audience.”
Mehrub recalls that she didn’t really know what gender was until she started going to school. “I think it was in kindergarten that I was first told that I was a boy,” she says, “and I did not know what that meant.” As punishment for playing with dolls and exhibiting other forms of “feminine” behavior, Mehrub remembers, her parents would lock her up in dark rooms. “I spent so many years being locked up in the garage that I could remember every inch of the tattered carpet. I’d memorized where all the loose nails and sharp points were so I knew where I could and couldn’t sit down.”
Though she never felt comfortable with her body, social pressures were such that Mehrub spent most of her life identifying as a man. In 2016, she went to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship; it was the experience of living as a gay man in Washington, D.C., where she completed a master’s degree in public health at George Washington University, that convinced her that she could no longer embody the masculine. “Basically, I decided that this being-a-man thing was not for me. I’d done it and didn’t like it and said goodbye to it.”
According to Mehrub, her realization resulted from the frequent expectation of sexual partners that she behave in a way that was hypermasculine. “I was living in Pentagon City, which was full of American soldiers. So anyone I’d match with on Grindr would say things like, ‘I want you to fuck me like I’m a horse, and I want you to shout Allahu akbar while you’re doing it—and I want you to make me your American slut!’” she remembers. “And then within the gay culture there’s a lot of toxic masculinity, right? It’s like, ‘We are into men, not sissies.’”
By the time Mehrub returned to Pakistan two years later, the landscape for transgender and gender-ambiguous people had fundamentally changed. In May 2018, after years of grassroots activism, the Pakistani parliament passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, a landmark piece of legislation developed to protect the rights of “any person whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the social norms and cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at the time of their birth.”
The law—among the most progressive in the world—defines the term “gender identity” as a person’s “innermost and individual sense of self as male, female or a blend of both or neither” and gives individuals the right to self-identification. It now no longer mattered what gender you had been assigned at birth; according to the language of the act, an individual could identify as whatever gender they felt like and have that identity reflected in official documents. The act also prohibits discrimination against trans individuals in schools, hospitals, and places of work; lays out their inheritance rights; and codifies their right to vote and run for public office.
“The 2018 law makes me feel a lot safer,” says Emon Kazmi, a transgender woman living in Islamabad. “I feel more confident in my gender identity, and I’m not apologetic about it like I used to be.”
Emon was brought up in what she describes as a very conservative household. “There was no flexibility to express my femininity at home,” she says. “It was out of the question for my family to entertain it.”
Her teenage years were the most difficult of her life—so punishing that she often used to pray to Allah to “fix what was wrong” with her. “I had to face a lot of bullying and sexual harassment growing up,” she says. “I never had friends in school or college. My peers would either sexualize me or cancel me…. Being sexualized destroyed my self-confidence. I used to hide from people. I was only comfortable alone. I had no social life whatsoever.”
Shortly after graduating from college, Emon met people from the trans community through social media. “That was the first time I felt accepted,” she says. “I understood that this is what I was. I didn’t need anyone to tell me—I just felt it inside.”
Deciding that she could never go back to living as a man, Emon moved in with a group of transgender women and began the formal process of transitioning into womanhood. She opted for what she called a “nonsurgical” route, which involved taking testosterone blockers in combination with progesterone, and went through the treatment without medical supervision. “There was no law back then, so we used to self-medicate,” she says. “There are lots of consequences. In the beginning, you have to face a lot of mental health issues. Your muscles and bones also start weakening, so you feel weak a lot of the time.”
The experiences of hormone replacement therapy can differ substantially from person to person. Mehrub describes the regimen as liberating—a return to equilibrium. “I was like, ‘This feels so natural, so organic.’ It’s like, ‘Wow, your body was craving it.’” The passage of the 2018 law, she argues, increased the visibility of transgender people and created a market around transition care: “It’s a niche economy, but there are doctors who are now specializing in the area because they know they will have transgender clients.”
This same visibility, however, has also made the new law the focus of religious and right-wing opposition. In November 2021, Senator Mushtaq Ahmed of the Jamaat-e-Islami (Party of Islam) introduced an amendment describing the original act as “repugnant” to Islam. The proposed amendment argues that the law in its present form will offend the dignity and modesty of Muslim women, make the recognition of gender a “subjective” matter, and effect the legalization of same-sex marriage. Other politicians, mostly from the religious right, have questioned the clause relating to self-identification and asked for the constitution of a medical board to resolve ambiguities around an individual’s sex.
According to Farzana Bari, a feminist scholar and former director of gender studies at Quaid-e-Azam University, the reason it has taken several years for the law to become contentious is that the legislators who passed it did not fully understand the experience of transgender people. “They didn’t realize what it means to self-identify,” Bari says. “In their perception, the word ‘transgender’ only meant people whose sexual organs were not well-defined. The concept that your soul could be trapped in the wrong body did not occur to them.”
Some legislators have gone beyond proposing amendments and are pushing to have the law repealed in its entirety. The act is being challenged in the Federal Shariat Court, the constitutional body responsible for ensuring that legislation remains compatible with the teachings of Islam. This religious opposition, according to Mehrub Awan, reflects the desire of the ultraright to “regimentalize” morality by using the state. “If you look at trans rights through a heterosexual lens, you see a marginalized minority being given a limited number of rights by the state,” she says. “But if you look at it from the perspective of the transgender community itself, you see that this is the one piece of legislation that can become a pinnacle for the redefinition of the Pakistani state’s contract with its people, by acknowledging its own aggression and admitting that this aggression is colonial in nature and that it needs to be rectified.”
With the law now in danger of being watered down or repealed, activists fear a return to the days when transgender people were stigmatized, misunderstood, and forced into segregation. That is the view of Nayyab Ali, a khawaja sira campaigner who heads the Transgender Protection Unit of the Islamabad Police. The unit was created to encourage trans people to report their grievances directly to the police instead of relying on the unofficial dispute resolution framework of the guru-chela system.
“Because society has isolated the khawaja sira community for so long, the community has created a separate system with its own rules and governance structure,” Nayyab explains. This system, according to Nayyab, benefits children who have been abandoned by their parents, allowing them to live under the protection of a guru or house mother who clothes and feeds and shelters them. Where it fails, however, is in bringing these children out of the margins. “Just like we see a doctor’s child becoming a doctor and an engineer’s child becoming an engineer, a transgender guru who has earned their living through sex work and begging will teach their disciples to do the same things.”
Nisha Rao is Pakistan’s first transgender attorney; she spent 15 years in the guru-chela system and describes it as cruel and exploitative. “The guru is supposed to be both your mother and your father,” she says. “To be a mother or a father, you have to accept your child’s mistakes, to press them close to your chest in spite of their failings—but in the guru-chela system, this is not what happens. In this system, you have to pay your guru every month out of your earnings. If you do something wrong, you’re issued a fine. You are bought and sold by different gurus against your will.”
Within the system, a chela may only leave their guru if they are bought by another guru, and the price of these transactions can run into the millions of rupees. The first time a transgender person is sold, the price is determined based on the money their guru has spent to house and clothe them and the number of fines the chela has accrued for poor behavior. What constitutes poor behavior is arbitrary and can be as trivial as not running a warm enough bath for the guru.
Nayyab Ali estimates that the price for the first-time sale of a chela is between 100,000 and 150,000 rupees. “Any guru who pays that amount to buy someone isn’t doing it out of kindness,” she says. “They are paying 100,000 for you so they can earn 200,000 from your labor.” Since many khawaja sira make a living through begging, dancing, or sex work, they are effectively being coerced into doubling their workload. This usually means servicing double the number of customers, dancing at twice as many parties, or spending many more hours begging on the street.
What makes things even worse is that for each subsequent sale of the same khawaja sira, community rules dictate that the price at which they are sold must automatically double. “It’s a very safe investment,” Nayyab says. “If you don’t make enough money for them, they will simply sell you on for double the price at which they bought you.”
These transactions are ultimately regulated by a council of khawaja sira ruling families, who are owed 25 percent of the money obtained from every sale. And because the percentage for the ruling families is fixed, they earn more money each time an individual is sold. “This is why gurus treat their chelas so badly” says Nayyab, who has been sold three times. “Sometimes they are trying to provoke their disciples into misbehaving so they can sell them on for a profit.”
Under Section 370 of the Pakistan Penal Code, buying or selling a person as a slave is punishable by a term of seven years in prison. Up until quite recently, however, very few chelas have been willing to prosecute their gurus, since doing so would almost certainly lead to excommunication. Under the system’s governing structure, the guru reserves the right to punish disciples by cutting off their hukka pani. Taken from a phrase meaning “tobacco pipe and water” in Urdu, the term refers to a sweeping form of censure that binds every adherent of the system to ostracize the offender. Community members are banned from living or socializing with that person.
Those khawaja sira caught interacting with the excommunicated person are rigorously fined for breaking the code, while the offender is forcibly prevented from earning a living through sex work or begging. If you have your hukka pani cut off, Nisha Rao explains, “you’ll be evicted from your home, and when you go out begging, eight or 10 community members will come and beat you up to stop you from working. They’ll rip up your clothes and make you wander the streets naked.”
Since many khawaja sira don’t have friends or companions outside the system, this punishment leads to total isolation. “It’s basically like you’ve been put in jail,” says Lahore-based community member and activist Zanaya Chaudhry. “Imagine if you have no link with your family; society already doesn’t accept you—where else are you going to find acceptance but within the khawaja sira culture? If they exclude you as well, where will you go?”
In the past few years, these internal systems of oppression have begun to face resistance. At the end of 2020, Nayyab Ali founded the Free Society—a new group within the transgender community whose members would no longer be bought and sold and who could live their lives without fear of ostracism and exile. This revolution, which began in Nayyab’s living room, has spread like wildfire throughout the country. “We are in the majority now,” she says. “I can tell you that just in Islamabad, about 75 percent of khawaja sira belong to the Free Society.”
Under Nayyab’s supervision, members of the Free Society are trained in how to use social media to promote their cause and given a grounding in various sections of the law. “Our goal isn’t just to free these individuals,” Nayyab says. “We want to give them the tools they need to stand up for themselves. We are creating leaders who are actually talking about independence and freedom.”
In retaliation, Nayyab says, leaders in the community decided to cut off her hukka pani. “I was like, ‘So what?’ I made a video which went viral naming the khawaja sira chieftains and said that I was excommunicating them in return.”
With the movement gathering steam, however, excommunication has become the least of her concerns. “I’ve had people come to my house to kill me. Elders in the community have tried to accuse me of blasphemy and of disrespecting the Prophet. I receive so many messages on WhatsApp saying things like I’ll be burned alive or killed. There are people who dream of killing me every night.”
Her courage to carry on, she says, is rooted in her Islamic faith and in a promise she made to herself while fighting for her life. In 2016, while she was dancing at a music festival in Muridwala, Nayyab was ambushed and doused with acid. Bedridden for several months, she decided that, if she survived, she would dedicate her life to fighting for her community. “Movements always require blood,” she says. “For members of vulnerable communities like ours, to be afraid of death is to behave like a chicken in a coop. Every time the butcher takes out a chicken to slaughter, the others start dancing because their number hasn’t come up. But eventually, everyone’s number will come up.”
Hasan Ali is a journalist reporting on US foreign policy and South Asian politics.