In Pakistan, they are known as khwaaja siras while in India they are called hijras. Often rejected by their own families, transgender individuals have long maintained their own communities across Southeast Asia. Led by gurus (teachers), these communities grow by finding and adopting transgender children who have been thrown out into the streets by their parents. Not easily classified into specific sexual categories, khwaaja siras can include transgender males and females (known as khusras), cross-dressers (zenanans), and eunuchs (narnbans). With few employment opportunities, khwaaja siras most often work as professional dancers or in the sex trade. They are a popular feature at many traditional weddings and other ceremonies.
While their history dates back thousands of years and are prominently featured in Vedic literature, khwaaja siras are often targets of death threats, sexual assaults, and murder. Even though the Pakistani Supreme Court has formally recognized khwaaja siras as a "third gender" with an improved legal standing and the right to vote, many members of the transgender community report that the violence is worse than ever. Since the beginning of 2016, nearly 45 transgender women had been attacked in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province alone.
In June of this year, three armed men broke into the home of a transgender woman named Kashi and attempted to rape her. They then shot her to death. Just a month earlier, transgender activist Alisha was shot to death by six men. Shortly before her death, she had rejected a proposition that she appear in pornographic videos. While kwaaja siras working in the sex trade are particularly at risk, transgender people from all walks of life report being harassed and intimidated into performing sexual acts, often as a prelude to further violence.
A common theme among many kwaaja siras in Pakistan involves problems with law enforcement. Trans women in Peshawar have recently started posting on Facebook about police violence aimed at the trans community. In a recent video posted online, one transgender woman described how police arrested their guru and what happened when they protested:
We were at a party when the police came they took our guru so we went after them. We are already a laughing stock, people mock and chase us, so of course the police did not let us go inside the police station so we decided to protest and chanting “let us in, let us in”, some boys that were standing nearby threw a rock at the gate, so the police came in from behind us (..) they grabbed and beat us up severely. Look at their condition, they tore off their clothes (..) they tore off my clothes as well and beat me up badly. Six policemen were on top of me kicking me and I passed out. Even when I passed out they kept kicking me and said “get up, get up, stop acting” (..). They grabbed and pulled off their hair and beat up others with sticks. What is our fault? We just went after our guru? What could we have done to the police? They even take money from us (extortion) and even take money from our guru, so what is our fault?
Despite being mocked and intimidated by the very people meant to protect them, transgender activists remain determined to stand up for their rights. After the death of Alisha, one Facebook post outlined what transgender activists planned next:
We know our rights and we are standing up to claim them.its just the beginning. We are a movement, we are pink warriors. There is no going back. We are equal citizens of Pakistan. We refuse to sit back. Despite of all the challenges and obstacles we have managed to stage a protest outside the Bolton Block where Alisha died.
The fight continues.