Farzana draws all eyes when she dances, with the twist of her hips and hair — but today she is above all the voice of a Pakistani community with an ambiguous status: the khawajasiras.
The 30-year-old is a guru, a matriarch at the head of a “family” of several hundred khawajasiras, an umbrella term in Pakistan denoting a third sex that includes transsexuals, transvestites and eunuchs.
She is co-founder and president of TransAction, a rights organisation launched in 2015 in Peshawar, capital of deeply conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.
Faced with brutal aggression and daily humiliation, this solid Pashtun, whose hoarse voice betrays her birth sex, “filed complaints in almost every KP police station” — but in vain.
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“More than 50 khawajasiras were killed in 2015 and 2016 in KP alone,” she says, recounting with fatalistic calm how she was repeatedly raped and blackmailed by police.
The status of khawajasiras — also known as hijras — is opaque in Pakistan to say the least.
Modern-day Pakistani transgender people claim to be cultural heirs of the eunuchs who thrived at the courts of the Mughal emperors that ruled the Indian subcontinent for two centuries until the British arrived in the 19th century and banned them.
Later, Pakistan became one of the first countries in the world to legally recognise a third sex. They number at least half a million people in the country, according to several studies — up to two million, say TransAction.
Since 2009, they have been able to obtain an identity card as “khawajasiras”, and several have run in elections. A Lahore court has ruled they should be counted in the next census, set to be held this year.
Like Farzana, many earn their living by being called upon for rituals such as blessing newborns or to bring life to weddings and parties as dancers — and, sometimes, in more clandestine ways.
But despite these signs of integration they live daily as pariahs, often reduced to begging and prostitution, subjected to extortion and discrimination.
The catalyst for TransAction’s mobilisation in Peshawar was the exclusion of transgenders from aid to populations fleeing Talibanisation and fighting in the tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan.
Sohana, 24, fled in 2008 from Kurram tribal district, where the Taliban had banished dancing and music, and forced men to grow beards.
“If I had stayed, I would be dead by now,” she says.