KHAWAJASIRA, the Urdu language equivalent for ‘transgender’ in Pakistan, was the title of the chief eunuch in the Mughal court. Eunuchs were royal slaves who not only served as custodians of the harem but also enjoyed unrestricted access to the king’s private chambers, wielded enormous power in the palace court, and possessed the elevated status of nobles in society.
As close royal aides, transgender persons were appointed as generals, governors, judges and teachers, according to their upbringing, education and experience. The less cultivated among them were employed in lower administrative ranks. In the slave market of mediaeval India, eunuchs were sold at a price three times higher than an average man.
Defined as a person who identifies with a gender other than the one assigned at birth, khawajasira has been adopted by human rights activists as a substitute for more customary (but derogatory) terms used to identify the transgender community. Today, not all khawajasira are eunuchs; the majority of them are male, biologically speaking, who adopt a ‘feminine’ persona, ie their manner and appearance is more commonly associated with the female gender.
The pejorative status of transgender people is a colonial relic we must discard.
Still, under Pakistan’s criminal laws, all transgender persons are legally considered eunuchs. Even the groundbreaking judgement on transgender rights by the Supreme Court in 2009 (and subsequent judgements in 2012) refers to khawajasira as eunuchs. Pakistani laws are based on a thick text of colonial legislations, which not only has primacy in current legislation, but also determine the social attitudes and public morality of contemporary society.
In contrast to their dignified status during the Mughal era, nowadays in our society to be transgender is widely regarded as a social pathology, its people inherently morally bankrupt and criminally suspect. The pejorative assignation of sexual deviancy stems from a 19th-century European view of politics, domesticity and gender, which was inherited and applied by the East India Company as it gained hegemonic control over the Indian political sphere.
Given the prominent role of the khawajasira in the Mughal administration, British colonialists perceived them as a threat to their territorial control that had to be eliminated. The British took steps to stop their community from growing, and prohibited the employment of otherwise highly competent khawajasira in the British Indian administration.
With the reins of power passed to the Crown, they began the task of social engineering British India. The lives of the transgender community were to be governed under the infamous Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. Under this colonial law, from the elite khawajasira to subaltern hijra, the community was considered equivalent to a tribe whose criminal intent was determined by their transgender-ness, and thus brought under the surveillance and control of the colonial state. By yoking the community under draconian laws as petty criminals, their movements were policed, their living quarters raided and their public performances banned on grounds of obscenity.
When the Mughal empire fell, the khawajasira too fell from grace, never able to regain what they had lost. From being trustworthy politicians, bureaucrats and generals of the Indian royalty and elite, they were reduced to being a laughing stock and counted among the poorest of the poor — treatment they continue to suffer from.
Although the revenge of the British colonialist seems total and the destruction of transgender groups complete, the khawajasira continue to resist the colonial and post-colonial control of their sexuality and survive to date as subalterns of Indian history, silenced and unheard by society. Today’s spectacle of the khawajasira begging on the street originates from the custom of toli, the collection of alms, as an everyday form of colonial resistance as well as an economic strategy to gain an alternate livelihood. Moreover, the very act of begging turned them into ascetics whose blessings, it is believed, can allow a woman to conceive a male child.
After centuries of neglect and shame, the world of the transgender community in Pakistan is rapidly transforming. While the judiciary is to be credited for recognising non-binary gender, the role of the legislature in allowing transgender people their rights of equal citizenship, admitted by the courts, through relevant legislation must also be commended. In this regard, the role of the National Commission for Human Rights, the federal ombudsman’s office and transgender rights activists is laudable in drafting a bill tabled in parliament for the protection and advancement of our transgender community. It is a moment of reckoning for legal mores and public morality, which has held the potential and promise of this community in chains for far too long. A new era must begin.
The writer is an anthropologist, former Director of National College of Arts, Rawalpindi campus, currently working for the Center for Culture and Development (C2D), Islamabad & Vice President of the Council of Social Sciences.