Being Transgender: From Mughal Palaces to Streets in Pakistan

When the British colonized India, the once glorious and mighty Mughal Empire crumbled. With the crumbling of this titanic Empire, it was not just the walls of Taj Mahal that began to corrode and deep grief that started to pervade upon Agra but a descent came to the respectable community of Mughal era; a decline pushing them to the verge of stigmatization; that community was the Eunuchs and transgenders of India.

Transgenders have existed since the 9th century BC. The word ‘eunuch’ is derived from a Greek word meaning ‘Keeper of the bed’. They had been inhabiting the Indian subcontinent long before the emergence of The Great Mughal Empire. The accounts for the elite status of the eunuchs can be found in the ancient Indian scriptures including Vedas, Kama Sutra, Manu Smriti, and Mahabharata. Interestingly, the chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology, Dr. Qibla Ayaz, also reports the appearance of a transgender named ‘Heet’ in the scriptures of Hadith.

Courtesy: getty images

Gender justice was observed during the Mughal period and eunuchs enjoyed a very reputable position. They were considered very faithful servants of the crown. It was customary in the royal households to have transgenders guard women quarters. They were educated and were well known for their wisdom. Many used to teach young princesses. We also find accounts of parents castrating their baby boys so that they would work at the royal courts.

The transgenders also occupied important socio political positions. They were political advisors, generals, and administrators. Thus, they influenced the politics of that time. They were also economically stable. And they had job security. By working in courts and harems, they received large sums of money.

The demise of eunuchs started after the British took over the subcontinent. Historians believe that the British viewed them as a threat to their authority because they held very important positions in the court. The White colonizers were very much offended by the third gender and did not approve of it.

In 1877 a law was passed by the name of the Criminal Tribes Act. It proposed 2-year imprisonment of all the eunuchs who were found dressed like women. Moreover, it also declared a penalty for them if they were found dancing or singing.

They were no more allowed to hold any offices. The colonial rulers deprived them of any sort of job as well as basic human rights. As a result, the transgenders were begun to be seen as an outcast. Instead of respecting them the general public now looked down upon them. It would be true to say that they never actually recovered from their downfall.

In Pakistan today, they are still seen as outcasts. Out of the 25 million transgenders worldwide Pakistan houses 10,000 of them. Life as a transgender in Pakistan is certainly hard. One can easily spot them as they have their faces covered in cheap makeup and are dressed in shimmering clothes. They can be seen begging in bazaars and at intersections. They are also present at wedding ceremonies, sometimes invited and sometimes not, to gather a few rupees. Many also indulge in sexual activities and others are exploited. The transgenders have a ‘guru’ system. Each guru has various disciples. The disciples give their gurus an amount from what they earn daily.

If a transgender baby is born to a couple, it is immediately given away; either to shelter homes o or to the transgender community. The general public detests them. They avoid having any contact with them. Yet, people fear offending them because it is a common opinion that transgenders can curse people.

It was as late as 2009 when transgender was first identified as the third gender in Pakistan. But it was only in 2012 when they were given a right to vote; 65 years after independence. And recently Allama Iqbal Open University started its enrollment for degree programs. So that they will also be able to acquire better jobs and improve their overall standard of life.

Many transgenders in Pakistan today are breaking the chains that have held them captive for decades. Nisha Rao became the first transgender lawyer in Pakistan. Marvia Malik is the first transgender TV anchor. There are also like Julie Awan raising voice for her community.

Transgender Activist Julie Awan speaking in her podcast at TCM

Life as a transgender in a country as transphobic as Pakistan is not easy. the religious clergy who holds the most respect is always opposing them. They are forced into sex work. Upon resistance, they are raped and killed, with no one to give justice to this marginalized clan. Incidents of police brutality against transgenders are endless. According to a report bt Samaa 500 transgenders have been killed since 2015.

They are denied jobs and education despite the law. They are even denied treatment in hospitals. Not long ago in 2016, a transgender Alisha was shot eight times in the face. She was taken to the Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar. But the doctors were reluctant to treat her because they did not know in which ward she should be admitted. Should it be either male or female? Amidst this dilemma, she lost her life.

The transgender community saw heights of glory in our history. But today it is ridiculed. It will be a long way till will see them as equals to other genders. Making policies won’t be enough as long as we don’t give them the respect they deserve. If not more, we all should at least treat them as fellow humans. It involves a constant battle against transphobia which grows with each coming day.

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Bushra Mahnoor

Writing is all the catharsis I need | Psychology student | Feminist