x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Beyond the curse

Saloon Only after my wedding, Nasir Khan writes, did I become acquainted with Pakistan's most marginalised community.

Only after my wedding, Nasir Khan writes, did I become acquainted with Pakistan's most marginalised community. I've never been sure exactly how to translate the Urdu word hijra (not to be confused with the Arabic word that means "migration") into English. In Pakistan, it is variously used to refer to eunuchs, hermaphrodites, transvestites and those who identify as neither men nor women, but as members of a "third gender". It's a loose social category - one that describes at least 90,000 Pakistanis - not a biological fact; to some extent, being a hijra means identifying yourself as a hijra, or at least finding yourself identified that way.

Of course, I lost most of my interest in the term's puzzling capaciousness soon after a crew of dancing hijras showed up uninvited at my wedding. On our mehndi, traditionally a day of dance and song, five hijras camped outside the hall we had rented, where they performed a short Bollywood routine, then refused to let my guests pass until they were paid. They proceeded to follow the multi-day celebration from venue to venue, hounding me for more money at every stop. They even interrupted the rukhsati - the ceremonial procession representing the bride's journey to her new home - by standing in our path and demanding more alms as our families looked on.

Every day, my mother insisted that I pay the hijras, feed them and give them small gifts - lest they curse us. Among my parents' generation, the curse of a hijra is thought to be particularly potent. Yes, hijras are regularly looked down upon, ridiculed, barred from employment, banished by their families and beaten - and still no one wants their wedding, or the birth of their son, or any other public celebration, to be marked by the hijra curse. At another wedding - with, naturally, its own uninvited hijras - I asked an Islamic scholar to explain this belief. "In Islam, it is said that Allah always listens more to those who have less," he told me. "This is why we fear that the curse of a mad person or a sorrowful person or a hijra can cause harm."

The hijras at my wedding were certainly aware of their supposed power. Once, overcome by frustration, I started shouting insults at their leader, Black Bobby. Bobby, 45, was a woman until the age of 14, when he reinvented himself as a man - dressing as a man, describing himself as a man, and even going so far as to perform a crude operation on himself, something he referenced often but the details of which never became clear to me. After listening to me yell for a few seconds, Bobby stepped forward, looked me straight in the eye and thundered: "We are here to share in your celebration and shower you with prayers and blessings. We are not here to be insulted." With that he turned, walked a few steps away, them dramatically twisted back and fixed me with an ominous stare. "We will be back." And of course they were, the very next day.

By the end of my wedding, I'd given up on being annoyed, and I actually knew Bobby pretty well - he and his troupe had, after all, been a daily presence through some of the happiest days of my life. So, a few weeks later, I called Bobby to ask if I could come visit his apartment in Diamond Market, Lahore's flourishing red-light district. Many hijras live there, some working as pimps, some prostituting themselves, many supplying shoulders for the city's most expensive prostitutes to cry on.

Bobby shares his one-bedroom apartment with seven other hijras, aged 13 to 30. He is their leader - they call him "guru", and themselves "students" - and every night they come home and place their earnings in his hand. In return, Bobby takes care of the flat, prepares their meals, choreographs their dance routines, and keeps an eye out for upcoming weddings. During the wedding season, a hijra can make 100 to 200 dollars a week, but during the rest of the year they struggle make 10 dollars a week, so planning is important, as is community support.

The walls are decorated with odd, grotesque paintings of children being carried in the mouths of lions, rolled over by cats and kicked by goats. Mattresses serve as beds, chairs and couches. A television is constantly on and switched to the Bollywood dance video channel: everyone who lives in the apartment spends two to three hours a day practicing the dances, adapting them as Bobby instructs. The first time I visited, Bobby and I sat in his "drawing room" while, in the next room, two of his flatmates slept, one applied make-up, and one rehearsed the latest moves.

On other visits, I got to know some of Bobby's crew better. There was Saima Jan, previously Haider Ali, a young hijra who spent most days sauntering provocatively through the red-light district. She - the pronoun Jan prefers - described herself as a "dancer and a poet", but eventually admitted that she "would also provide other benefits". In sharp contrast to Jan was Gul Begum, a middle-aged hijra who dressed in a tattered shawl and stained clothes. Begum made money by roaming the streets of Lahore, bowl in hand, begging for alms.

"I tell those who refuse me that I will curse them and that usually does the trick," she said with a wink. "You know the curse of the eunuchs is much to be feared." Over the last two yearsor so, I have thought of Bobby and his "students" often as Pakistan's supreme court has issued a string of ground-breaking judgements in support of hijras' rights. Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudrhy has decreed that hijras should enjoy all the same rights as other Pakistanis, particularly when it comes to employment, election registration and inheritance law. These decisions all result from petitions by Mohammad Aslan Khaki, a social worker and Islamic jurist, who started championing equal rights in the aftermath of a brutal police raid on a hijra colony in the city of Taxila.

In his first ruling, Chaudrhy ordered the government to recognise the category by conducting a survey of hijras and the services available to them. And last summer, the court ruled that hijras are as entitled as anyone else to ask for a share of their family's inheritance. I called up Bobby the day the decision was announced on national television. It was late in the afternoon, and Bobby was busy collecting his group's earnings. I told him what had happened, and he switched on the television. Later, he told me that he instantly forgot about everything. He forgot that he had called a dance rehearsal that afternoon, he forgot to place the day's earnings in his locked drawer, he forgot that he was out of rice and wheat, he forgot that we were on the phone. He simply watched, then wept.

"I am not interested in getting property from my family or asking them for any money," he told me. "I was just so glad that someone had given us respect." Justice is a tricky thing, and hijras will surely continue to be shunned, scorned, feared and harassed - especially since few of them have the money necessary to seek legal recourse. But when I visited the Diamond Market that night, I saw Bobby and his troupe celebrating excitedly on the street. Bobby, dressed in skin-tight jeans and a gold T-shirt, did a mad, whirling, unchoreographed celebration dance; Saima Jan did a few Bollywood steps; Gul Begum stood and clapped excitedly. Other hijras stood around them, screaming and clapping excitedly.

Soon I decided to leave, and I walked up to Bobby to slip him a few rupees. For the first time, I saw him shake his head and refuse money. "Tonight we are not dancing for money," he told me. "Tonight we are dancing for ourselves."

Nasir Khan, a regular contributor to The Review, is an advertising executive and freelance journalist based in Pakistan.