For centuries, South Asia has had its own Khawaja Sira or third gender culture. The community, identifying as neither male nor female are believed, by many, to be ‘God’s chosen people,’ with special powers to bless and curse anyone they choose.
The acceptance of Khawaja Sira people in Pakistan has been held up internationally as a symbol of tolerance, established long before Europe and America had even the slightest semblance of a transgender rights movement.
But the acceptance of people defining their own gender in Pakistan is much more complicated. The term transgender refers to someone whose gender identify differs from their birth sex. This notion is yet to take root in Pakistan and the transgender rights movement is only beginning to assert itself formally. Now, some third gender people in Pakistan say the modern transgender identity is threatening their ancient third gender culture.
Kami Choudary has made international headlines and has been billed as ‘Pakistan’s first transgender supermodel.’ This year Choudary delivered her first TEDx talk and she makes regular speaking appearances, telling her story and debating transgender rights in university auditoriums. She asserts herself, not as a Khawaja Sira but as a transgender woman. She acknowledges that her experience, as a rising transgender celebrity in Pakistan, is not the norm.
“My mother supports me. My boyfriend supports me and my mentors and friends support me,” says Kami, who wants transgender people in Pakistani’s to be more vocal. “We have to do something. I am very public so people are always talking about Kami.”
Choudary benefits from the privilege of familial support and being able to identify as she chooses. She is educated, English speaking and from a fairly affluent family. In contrast, many Khawaja Siras are disowned by their biological families. The community is discriminated against heavily, with most Khawaja Siras making a living from performance, sex work or begging. They are simultaneously celebrated as ‘gifted’ by God and ridiculed for not conforming to the male/female gender roles that society prescribes.
Bindiya Rana is the grand matriarch of the third gender community in Karachi. She doesn’t prescribe to the transgender identity. She is a Khawaja Sira, so revered that she is a guru (teacher) to more than 50 chelahs or apprentices.
This relationship has a parental element and is a cornerstone of Khawaja Sira culture. Each chelah pledges allegiance to their guru, as they did to their guru before them. These family trees provide acceptance, social support and financial backing. Most chelahs give a percentage of their income to their gurus. It’s a lifetime commitment that allows the establishment of families that often replaces biological lineage.
But those who identify as transgender, like Choudary, don’t prescribe to the guru-chelah system. As a result, Rana and her chelahs view the transgender identity as alien and even immoral.
“If you don’t have a guru, we don’t recognize you. These people who say they are transgender; that concept is just wrong,” says Rana. “They can never be women. They cannot give birth. Even if they change their bodies they can’t change who they are. We are not women. We are what Allah has made.”
Such sentiment detracts from the idea that Pakistan has a liberal take on transgender rights. It’s more accurate to assert that Pakistan has an established acceptance of third gender culture. These are two different things.