When the petition for looking into the plight of Khawja Saras
(transsexual/transvestite) was filed in the Supreme Court of Pakistan,
it caught everyone by surprise when the Court issued a directive to the four provincial social welfare departments to research into the issue.
The case is lovingly referred to belonging to those who are fond of getting
penetrated and are at the bottom in the sexual act.
The Court decision is in English and is mainly focused on looking into human
rights violations of the populations of transgender and/or
transvestites and finding ways to ensure equal rights and equal
opportunities to these populations.
The decision is to look into the matters of transgender and
transvestites. In Urdu, the two terms are being translated as Khawja
Saras but what needs to be understood is that the specific institution
of Khawja Saras does not exist anymore. It ended somewhere in 19th
century when the patronage of this institution seized to exist because
of the end of nobility in what is now India .
The terms that are used to define behavior manifestations in male that
do not conform to his biological make up are terms that are mostly
derogatory and fall short of clearly defining the different identities
that exists within this specific population.
It does not work on many counts and some of main ones are:
It is a requirement for a Khawja Sara to be castrated, whereas, most
of the existing population of the male who manifest feminine behavior
and have a desire to be like a woman are not castrated.
Secondly, the institution that created spaces for such population
does not exist any more.
Thirdly, the elements of sanctity and respectability inherent in the
institution of Khawja Sara are not there any more
However, what is out there currently is a population that has some of
the following features, amongst others:
1. The population may or may not be emasculated .
2. The spaces that exist are the households of Gurus. These households
are supported by a code of ethics that the community has evolved for itself. No outside patronage is available to safeguard the interest of these households.
3. The population has been marginalized and ridiculed to the extent
that they have internalized their own marginalization and consider
themselves as dysfunctional and a burden on the mainstream society.
Any form of activism for the betterment and uplift of the community
has to be designed using this as a backdrop.
First of all, one has to understand that there are different identities within this larger population and the English term transvestite may be the only term that may encapsulate some of the characteristics that describes the Zenana identity but not all as the zenana identity has lot more than just
being interested in cross dressing or manifesting female behavior.
What are Zenanas?
Zenanas describe themselves as individuals who are born with a body of
men but with “rooh” (literally meaning spirit) of women. The realization of being different hits any such child early and generally he desires and prefers to keep a female demeanor than a male one. Initially all remains well till the child is reaching the adolescence; this is when the male in the household get nervous and start exerting both mental and physical pressure upon this child to conform to his biological form, which for this child is difficult to
In search of his identity, this child now starts a painful journey, where he is alone and all sorts of abuse and deception is waiting for him. The child is harassed and ridiculed all the way till he finds solace in one of the zenana guru’s household. What needs to be understood here is that no matter how gruesome the treatment is at the gurus house, this remains the only family structure for him as his own family has disowned him and do not want to have anything to do with him. The guru is the mother, the father, the brother and the sister and most of all this is the only space where this child has the freedom to be what he wants to be. This child is not willing to trade this freedom for anything in the world .
How does the so called transvestites or in Pakistani context Zenana community benefits from the Court decision?
1. Provision of an alternate system of support if the Guru-Chella
(disciple) relationship is abusive:
The petition that was presented before the court briefly touched upon
the evils of the Guru-Chella relationship. The description of this
relationship in the petition and what follows projects it as one of
the most exploitative and abusive situation equating it to a form of
The benefits of the relationship should not be forgotten. The foremost thing about this relationship is that it has built in checks and balances that are provided by the zenana code of ethics and any diversion from it is heavily penalized. Therefore, there are monitoring mechanisms that are in place for checking out accesses. How effectively those mechanisms are used? If courts want to do away with the Guru-Chella relationship then, it would have to provide an alternate support system which is better than the existing one, and has all the safety valves in place, or through a sensitized and trained social welfare department make sure that the child remains safe at his
biological home and the family understands this child’s special needs.
2. Equal opportunities translates into equal rights:
From the very day that the directive/decision has been made public,
there is a sudden surge of zenanas on different talk shows on most
private and state owned television channels. Zenanas are suddenly part
of exotic and everybody is trying to get on the bandwagon of
exploration. Well meaning moderators are coming up with suggestions
for a “better and respectful life”. Mostly one gets to hear the following:
“Why do you not get into stitching clothes or cooking or get hired
as household help. You have such good skills. Why do you have to
humiliate yourselves by dancing and getting teased?”
Why are the moderators not offering choices such as access to
education, access to information and access to wide variety of choices
that are there for others in the society? Equal rights generally do
not exist in a vacuum. Equal opportunities have to be provided for
people to enjoy and sustain equal rights.
3. The threat of Section 377 of Pakistan Penal Code (PPC)
The PPC criminalizes sodomy. Section 377 clearly states that any such act is un-natural offence and puts it in the same category as bestiality. What is the significance of Section 377 in this matter? The reason that this section is mentioned here is that most of the zenanas do not go through surgical process and remain men as per biological definition, however, since they are women from within and have the similar desires as a sexual being. They are
attracted to other male for sexual gratification. This brings the zenanas on the radar of section 377, and makes their sexual life punishable.
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