The way we were
Hijras have forever fascinated, harassed and mystified people all over Pakistan. However, beneath the glitz and laughter lie dreams, ambition and the desire to live a normal life
By Naurin Sultana
"I have often wept for myself, watching my siblings eating, playing and laughing with our parents and relatives," says Naina, a 24-year-old eunuch, also known as Ali. Her parents had made her leave their house when they discovered that she was a khadra, or hijra.
Naina, Saeeda, and Kashish worked together for Tamasha Line, an entertainment troupe in Punjab, which danced at weddings, births or any other major family events. They would be showered with one, two and five rupee notes while performing. However, currency notes have been replaced with coins, making it harder for people to carry large amounts of money in small denominations. Many can't afford to, and even those who can, hesitate to part with their 10 rupee notes. Gradually, their income decreased, with no other option to explore, as Tamasha Line was their only source of livelihood.
As they had lost business in their own area, they moved to Karachi in search of a living. They beg on the roads and streets of the city, and are given, one, two or five rupees by people. In the evenings, they frequent Sea View, an area assigned to them by their guru, like so many other hijras from different areas. At the end of each day, they hand in their earnings to their guru, who deducts the household expenses from the amount, keeps a large chunk for herself, and divides the rest equally amongst all the hijras.
Being a hijra did not always carry the extreme social stigma it does today. Hijra, in the sub-continent, is the word used to refer to people who are inter-sex, belonging to a "third gender," which has no classification, but are not necessarily castrated or eunuchs. Hijras were considered capable and valuable advisors during the Mughal era. There have been sufis who have passed through history, who have at the same time been members of the hijra community. Among them were a sufi and poet Yatim Shah, a saint, Khalij Khan and a dervish Musa Shah-i-Suhag, who was especially revered by a special order of Muslim mystics, the Suharwardiyya-Suhagiyya. It was only in the British Raj that the colonials passed a law in which hijras were described as sodomites and people who committed "homosexual offences". In medieval times hijras were also employed to teach the recitation of the Holy Quran to young princes and princesses. In 1776, Agha Mohammad Khan Ghajar, who had, at the age of six been castrated on the orders of Adil Shah to discourage him from becoming a political rival, still rose through his career and was crowned as Shah of Iran and established the Qajar Dynasty.
Today in Pakistan, eunuchs, whose population exceeds one million, are still fighting for their basic rights. Even in India, hijras are allowed to vote and enter politics. Kamla Jaan contested the elections from Katni and became the first Indian hijra mayor in January 2000. Another hijra, Asha Devi, also became mayor of the town of Gorakhpur in northern Uttar Pradesh.
Taking their cue from hijras in India, those present in Karachi have started organizing themselves. Just like the city government system, the hijras have divided themselves into groups and areas.
"One hijra will not go to another's area to beg. We are very honest about it," says, Shamela. They have a proper, systematic network where a new entrant cannot beg without registering herself with the guru of the area. "Although several times fake hijras have tried to earn money, the police have been very loyal with the gurus," says Guru Azra of Korangi. She adds that, "the police do not let unregistered fake hijras beg in our area for which we give them kickbacks on a monthly basis."
Azra denies the fact that fake hijras are present in the area, "It is true that they have tried to earn money posing as khadras, but because of our strong network, the police, and the fact that we recognize those who have not been registered, we catch the fakes quite quickly."
"After this, they are examined from every aspect in order to ensure their gender and only then are they allowed to remain in our basti." A Guru can sell her chela (student) to another group, where the price depends on the expense she has spent on her including the profit. If a chela tries to run away from one group to another, for any reason, no other guru will accept her. Guru Azra says empathetically that, "we promise to obey all the rules and regulations of the agreement till the day we die."
In the hijras' opinion, Karachi women are more generous than men, as majority of the men, when they give money, expect sexual favours in return. On the other hand, women give money and request them to pray for their families. Saeeda says, "Pathans are the worst people for us, the way their men and children treat us is the most terrible kind of treatment we receive from anyone."
Ever wonder why hijras rely on begging and dancing as a source of income? Why do they not opt for a job that is considered more honourable in our society? In history there have been very strong connections between music, dance, spirituality and the hijra culture. From a sufi and dervish point of view, these are ways through which hijras communicate with and connect to God. In fact there are many connections between hijra culture and sufism, for instance the urs of Khwaja Chishti in Ajmer is known to be a festival which is attended by hundreds of hijras from India and Pakistan. The dancing culture started from shrines and now it is used for earning money by performing on special occasions.
"We personally do not like to beg and we never want to; it is one of the worst aspects of being what we are," says Kashish. "People expect us to ask for money in a raunchy manner. At times, men give us more money if we sit in their laps. Nobody really gives simply in the name of Allah, which surely shows the lack of respect extended to our kind in our society."
Those hijras involved in prostitution earn more than others and in less time. Hijras from Shireen Colony are famous among hijras from other areas for sex-work. Nowadays, it is not just visibly deviant men who seek sexual services from hijras, according to the hijras who spoke to Kolachi, but also seemingly noble individuals who enjoy their services at rates cheaper than those of other sex-workers.
Today, inter-gender sex-workers are mainly an issue within big cities like Karachi and fairly uncommon in rural areas. For many hijras, sex work is the only option as no one is willing to employ them because of their gender identity. Even as commercial sex-workers, hijras are the most vulnerable group. They are unable to ensure that their customers practice safe sex. According to health workers they are the main carriers of the deadly HIV virus, and one of the major factors in the spread of this disease. They are also at risk of violence both from customers and the police. Violence is almost an everyday reality for a hijra. Hijras often use public spaces like parks and toilets to entertain partners and sometimes even clients. The lack of protection or privacy afforded by their own accommodation makes them vulnerable to violence, largely by the police. At police stations, the police more often than not violate all civilized behaviour by physically, sexually and verbally assaulting hijras.
When asked about changing their social condition in the future they expressed their feelings as, "please make any factory or institution where only eunuchs can work and study. We do not enjoy begging and dancing for all kinds of people. We would love to be respected like others."
They feel like women but being hijras cannot live, study and work like women. It is assumed by people that they can not do any constructive work except begging and dancing. Even if they want to work as maids, people do not accept them. They are not considered 'normal', and make people uncomfortable because of their differences. "We can only not give birth, but can easily do any other work only if we are given the opportunity to educate ourselves," says Kum Kum, "we can work in offices and bring revolutionary changes in this country, and I mean it, if there is anyone willing to make this difference, then we are ready to change the history of hijras!"
The society which we live in comprises of all kinds of people. Each person has their own perception of the people and circumstances that surround them. Problems do arise when there are preconceived assumptions and biases are allowed to colour opinions indiscriminately. But there might come a day when the walls of judgment will come down, and every citizen of this country will be given and equal and fair chance to live a normal, full and promising life.
So close yet
so far:Pak-India Ties
More than a year ago, Faiz Mohammed was detained in India without a reason. But he is not the only one; prisoners from both countries are languishing in jails on the other side of the border, waiting for justice to be served.
By Adeel Pathan
The peace talks and confidence building measures; popularly known as CBMs, between Pakistan and India have been going on successfully for the last few years. People to people contact and goodwill visits have further strengthened trust between the two nations, which are usually wary of each other.
The measures towards peace between India and Pakistan include softening of borders and easing movement of citizens between countries without too much obstacle. Yet suspicion that residents of each country raise in the other has yet to become part of list of important items to be discussed in meetings addressing the various issues and disputes between Pakistan and India.
The world witnessed the decision taken by the government of Pakistan to release Indian spy Kashmir Singh, a decision that was not welcomed inside Pakistan because Kashmir Singh was not an ordinary citizen. However the government justified the release by pointing out that Singh had been improsined for 35 years.
But a larger problem to be recognized, tackled and resolved is the imprisonment of ordinary citizens for small or non-existent crimes in both countries.
Faiz Mohammed, who worked as a tailor during his early age is one such victim who is languishing somewhere in India because of a crime he never planned, let alone committed.
Resident of Tando Thoro of Hyderabad District, Faiz was 70-years-old when he agreed to accompany relatives in order to visit his ancestral home in Rajasthan in Fatehpur Sikri, where his late father had aimed to spread education by constructing a school.
Faiz arrived at the Delhi Railway Station on January 26, 2007. Because of his old age, Faiz could not speak properly and also suffered from paralysis; therefore the relatives who accompanied him on his journey to Delhi asked him to remain seated so that they could transfer the luggage outside the railway station after their documents had been cleared.
When they returned, Faiz was nowhere to be found. His relatives lodged a report with the local police and security officials which bore no results. Eventually, they had to leave before their visas expired.
"According to information we have received, my father, an aged citizen of Pakistan, has been imprisoned in Tehar Jail near Delhi, without any reason, for over a year," says Fazal Mahmood, Faiz's only son.
"I have been making endless efforts for my father's release," says Fazal, "and despite reaching out to both Indian and Pakistani diplomats, we are struggling without any success."
Fazal Mahmood visited India in this process and tells Kolachi that he contacted Indian diplomats and officials with the help of relatives in India and also handed over documents to the Pakistani High Commission but has not received a response thus far.
Faiz Mohammed's absence has also taken it's toll on his wife, who has become ill following his disappearance.
Fazal points out that January 26 is India's National Day; army officials take control of security arrangements on this day. Though the family believes Faiz is in Tehar Jail, they are not being granted access to him and can't work at proving his innocence.
Faiz Mohammed's is just one family that has come forward with their plight, but there are countless people on both sides of the border suffering from the same dilemma.
Rana Siddiqui, activist of Pak-India Peoples Forum for Peace tells Kolachi that general relations between India and Pakistan have significantly improved over the past few years but ordinary citizens still do face problems and difficulties.
"Even some of my close relatives who have recently visited India complained of the poor attitude of immigration and security officials," says Rana
Pakistan's new government should put down easing ties between the two neighbouring countries as one of it's top priorities. Releasing prisoners on both sides could help improve relations between Pakistan and India.
Citizens in Pakistan and India should be extended respect and courtesy in both countries at all times as we cannot change whom we share our border with, but we can improve relations with them. Once some level of confidence is established in both countries regarding each other, an attempt to resolve larger issues can be made.
Simultaneously, the Indian and Pakistani governments and human rights organizations should take notice of such cases not only to provide justice through releasing 70-year-old Faiz Mohammed but other citizens as well.
Philanthropy and khatti daal
By Sabeen Jamil
"Living with different cultures gives one a positive outlook on things," thinks Shehlah Zahiruddin of Ahsaas, the NGO that gives micro-credit loans to the needy. Made by the students of Institute of Business Administration (IBA) in 1996, Shehlah has been a part of Ahsaas for more than a decade now. Apart from this she runs a designing firm Logic Box. She still manages to take out a few hours per week for Ahsaas, as she believes that, "giving back to society is equally essential." Shehlah acknowledges that apart from her there are a lot of other Karachiites as well who are trying to contribute to society by sparing time and money. Being connected to both Parsi and Hyderabadi cultures, as she was raised by a Parsi-convert mother and Hyderabadi father, Shehlah believes that being acquainted with different cultures makes one tolerant of others. Shehlah explains the philanthropic spirit among Karachiites through the same cultural-connection phenomenon.
Kolachi: How does being familiar with different cultures impact a person?
Shehlah: Exposure to different cultures opens the mind. When one is exposed to varying cultures or religions he develops an acceptance of other cultures and appreciation for their own. For my part I have been influenced by both Hyderabadi and Parsi cultures equally. I inherited respect for other cultures from my Hyderabadi roots and my philanthropic spirit and the concept of giving back to society from my Parsi roots.
Kolachi: How do you compare Hyderabadi and Parsi cultures? What makes these cultures unique?
Shehlah: I don't compare but appreciate these cultures. Both have their own identity. On the one hand, Hyderabadi culture is rich with a sweet and idiomatic language, values like respect of elders and of course their unique cuisine, while on the other, Parsis have an ingrained philanthropic spirit as a major part of their culture. Parsis everywhere in the world contribute goodness to the society they live in and they do it regardless of religion, which is very beautiful.
Kolachi: How is the society in Karachi a reflection of these two cultures?
Shehlah: Karachi has its fair share of both of these cultures. For Instance, Hyderabadi culture is generally identified by its food and way of dressing. Bagharay bengan, khatti daal, Hyderabadi biryani, luqmi and dozens of varying achar found at Hyderabadi Colony are some of the Hyderabadi tastes known and shared by almost everyone in Karachi. Actually, everyone in Karachi has a bit of the Hyderabadi touch in the food they eat, but they don't realize it has come from Hyderabad Deccan. Then the royal way of dressing which emerged from Hyderabad Deccun is still alive in Karachi. Khara duppatta is one such example. The six yard long dupatta with heavily worked borders, though not commonly worn in Karachi, is still worn by Hyderabadi women on occasions. Given its demand there are still some people in Karachi who make this dress on order and thus the royal dress is still alive in Karachi.
Similarly, of the Parsi culture, schools, hospitals and landmarks are manifestations of the Parsi spirit of philanthropy, which is a major part of Parsi culture. Other than this, the Parsi dhansak, the meal course constituting varying pulses, vegetables and meats and served at religious occasions among Parsis as well as dugli, the traditional dress of Parsis for men constituting of a white top, trouser and a cap are some of the things that portray prevalence of Parsi culture in Karachi. I think Karachiites are blessed for living alongside so many varying cultures because it makes them cosmopolitan.
Kolachi: How does living among different cultures make one cosmopolitan?
Shehlah: It does so by increasing your cultural vocabulary. Sometime back while I was in Lahore I was speaking in Gujrati to someone over the phone. While I was speaking in Gujrati no one around me even knew what language I was speaking, which is totally different to Karachi where even if one doesn't understand the language he at least knows what language it is. Therefore, as a Karachiite your mind is cosmopolitan. When you live along with so many different cultures your level of tolerance and appreciation for other cultures and religions increases which is very positive and needs to be promoted further to reduce the pessimism fast making its way among Karachiites.
Shehlah feels proud of the fact that like big cities such as Los Angles where there are pockets of different cultures, Karachi too has such cultural pockets. She names Hyderabad Colony, Parsi Colony, Kharadar etc. as a few such areas that reflect different cultures in Karachi. Shehlah feels there is a need to advertise these cultural pockets by holding cultural and food festivals of respective cultures in their areas to promote positive thinking among Karachiites. Carrying itself regally and thinking globally, such is Karachi's Character.
Photos by Zahid Rehman
The way we were
The day Erica Jong came to dinner
By Kaleem Omar
First, by way of introduction, let me tell you a little bit about my old friend Michael Gill who lives in London and is arguably the best television documentary filmmaker in the world. He is married to Georgina Dennison, who has been Michael's associate in the filmmaking business for many years.
Georgina, who is the very epitome of a peaches-and-cream complexioned English lady, has a very pucca accent, the words pouring out of her at machine-gun speed – peppered with insider references to London's literary crowd, with whom she has had a long association going back to the mid-1970s when she was publicity director for the well-known British publishing firm of Gollancz.
Michael and Georgina live in a beautiful old house off Church Street in South Kensington. Their next-door neighbours are the famous English playwright Harold Pinter (who won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years ago) and his equally famous wife, the writer Lady Antonia Fraser – one of England's most celebrated beauties in her day. Asked once by a journalist how she came to write her highly praised 1982 biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, Lady Antonia retorted: "I wrote it to prove I'm not just a pretty mind!"
Back in the 1960s and '70s Michael Gill made several critically acclaimed television documentary series for the BBC, including: "Kenneth Clarke's Civilisation" (generally regarded as the greatest of all art history series); "Alistair Cooke's America" (an account of the birth and development of the United States); and "The Windsors" – a seven-part series about the British royal family that was broadcast in 1978 to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's accession to the throne.
The BBC sold the US rights for "Alistair Cooke's America" to the American NBC televsion network in 1972 for two million dollars. But Michael received no share of the money because he was a BCC employee at the time. It was then that he decided to go into the filmmaking business for himself, and set up a production company called Malone Gill Productions, in association with Adrian Malone, an Englishman living in Los Angeles
Under the Malone Gill Productions banner, Michael Gill has produced and directed many documentary films for television, including "Dream Houses" (1980), "The Campus, A Place Apart" (1986), "Monet: Legacy of Light" (1987), "Paul Gauguin: The Savage Dream" (1988), "Vintage: A History of Wine" (1991), "Nature Perfected: The Story of the Garden" (1995), "Vermeer: Light, Love and Silence (1996) and "Face of Russia" (1998).
I happened to be in London in the summer of 1980 and was invited one evening to a dinner party at Michael's and Georgina's home. The dinner was in honour of the American novelist Erica Jong (of "Fear of Flying" fame – her 1973 novel which has sold over 12 million copies). She was looking for an English filmmaker to make a movie version of her 1980 novel "Fanny: Being the True Adventures of Fanny Hacabout-Jones", which had just been published, and Malone Gill Productions were hoping to sign a deal with her. Hence, the dinner party.
Jong's novel, which is set in 18th Century England, tells the story of a foundling, Fanny, who is discovered on the doorstep of a country estate in Wiltshire and raised to womanhood by her adoptive parents, Lord and Lady Bellars. Fanny wants to become the epic poet of her age, but her plans are dashed when she is ravaged by her libertine stepfather. Fleeing to London, Fanny falls in with idealistic witches and highwaymen who teach her of worlds she never knew existed. After toiling in a London brothel that caters to literati, Fanny embarks on a series of adventures that teach her what she must know in order to live and prosper as a woman.
The novel has all the ingredients of a bawdy tour de force. Unfortunately for its author, Erica Jong, however, the Australian-born critic Clive James had published a scathing article about the book in the The New York Review of Books, an American literary periodical. As it happened, the issue carrying James' piece had hit the stands in London on the very day of Michael's and Georgina's dinner party. I had picked up a copy of the journal and had read James' piece on my way to their house in a taxi. It didn't take me long to realise that James had done a devastating demolition job on the book.
To make matters worse, Erica Jong turned up at the dinner party in a purple mini skirt and purple cowboy boots, of all things. As if that weren't bad enough, it soon became apparent that she thought of herself as a femme fatale who only had to bat her eyelashes at a man to have him drooling all over her.
Seeing his quests starting to snigger at the sight of a wannabe femme fatale in purple cowboy boots, Michael drew me aside and said, "KO, please be nice to her. I'm trying to sign a deal with her and I don't want her getting upset." "Okay," I said, "I'll do my best." Evidently, my best wasn't good enough. Halfway through the meal, Erica left in a huff, leaving her lamb chops unfinished.
That must have been the end of the deal that Malone Gill Productions were hoping to sign with Ms Jong, because "Fanny" never did get made into a movie, though the word is that it is soon to be a Broadway musical. One can only hope the musical's producers will draw the line at Fanny wearing purple cowboy boots.
On a happier note, perhaps Michael Gill's most acclaimed television documentary series is "The Commanding Sea: Six Voyages of Discovery". Made in the late 1970s and broadcast in 1980, to coincide with the publication of famed British woman sailor Clare Francis' book of the same title, the series highlights the sea's role in man's history.
The enormous size, fearful power and mysterious depths of the oceans, and the story of man's struggle to conquer them, are the subject of "The Commanding Sea". The romance of trade and of great ocean liners; the frightening firepower of modern navies; the glories and miseries of naval history; the search for riches in and under the sea – these are among the themes explored in Claire Francis' six voyages as filmed by Michael Gill.
"Land-living, we tend to take the sea for granted," Gill writes in his introduction to Claire Francis' book. "Making the films on which this book is based was a continual lesson in the sea's immense and unpredictable power. We saw the most costly plans of North Sea oil engineers, the most advanced technology of ocean scientists suffer as much delay and risk as the humble outrigger of Pacific islanders. No man commands the sea."
Yet from the earliest days, Gill adds, "we have struggled with it, learned to cross its surfaces for our profit in trade, and to harvest its resources for food. During the last two decades we have made a huge leap forward in our knowledge of the sea. For the first time this almost unknown element covering seven-tenths of the surface of the globe is being scientifically examined. The excitements of this last frontier of discovery are equal to those of a voyage in space, and far more relevant to our survival."
But Gill sounds a note of warning when he writes: "Our very success is putting the oceans in jeopardy: the dangers of exploration are already with us. Ultimately, we need the waters of the world in order to exist, and we need their fish and minerals and energy for our well-being. Our voyages were timely: this decade (the 1970s) – with the conclusion of the world's negotiations on the Law of the Sea, the most comprehensive international legislation ever attempted (the treaty was signed in 1980) – is likely to be crucial in man's long relationship with the commanding sea."
Michael Gill chose a huge subject for "The Commanding Sea" and handled all the complex themes brilliantly, proving yet again that he is a true master of the filmmaker's art. Unlike some masters, however, Michael is the humblest and kindest of men. To see him riding around on a bicycle through the streets of London in the 1970s in his scruffed tennis shoes and faded blue jeans, as I had occasion to do, you would never have guessed that here was one of the world's great filmmakers.
Sad to say, however, I received an e-mail message from Georgina a few years ago saying that Michael has Alzheimers. There are going to be no more Michael Gill films now.