A Second Look at Pakistan’s Third Gender


By Bram Steenhuisen

Sindh, Pakistan – The April 25th decision by Pakistan’s Supreme Court to officially recognize transgender people as the third gender marked a groundbreaking development that has gone relatively unnoticed by the outside world. It was the most significant judgment in a series of decisions the Court has taken over the last year and a half aimed at protecting the rights of the Khawaja Sara – a term encompassing transvestites, transsexuals and transgender people. There are signs that these decisions are already starting to bear fruit in this conservative nation of 187 million people. “It really is unbelievable” says Sanam Faqueer, an activist from the southern city of Sukkur and focal person on Khawaja Sara issues for the provincial government of Sindh. “Finally there is a real chance our problems are starting to be addressed.”

That the estimated 100.000 Khawaja Sara in Pakistan are being stigmatized becomes clear when the waiter rudely interrupts our interview in a dilapidated restaurant in the heart of Sukkur. While the dark space is near empty apart from a few mustached men who are enjoying their afternoon tea, the waiter tells Sanam to leave the restaurant at once because it soon will become busy. Sanam quietly picks up her handbag and tells me to follow her. “I have been dealing with this rejection all my life,” explains the 35-year old Khawaja Sara once we relocated to a friend’s room nearby. “As a kid I was beaten up at school and when my dad got paralyzed when I was twelve my family blamed it on me. My life became unbearable, so I ran away.”

Sanam assists survivors of the 2010 floods in Pakistan. She hopes acts like this change the public image of Khawaja Sara. ©Sanam Faqueer

The position of Khawaja Sara in Pakistan is complex. The group is heavily stigmatized but is simultaneously being attributed special powers, explains Sanam. “If I’m walking into a room and there’s a power cut I hear people say that this is happening because of my presence. At the same time these people want me to sing songs to their newborn child because they think that this provides additional protection.” The confusion doesn’t end there. “Our greatest pain is that we do not know who we are ourselves. From the day we are born we have a female spirit in us and we want to do what a woman normally does, but physically we are a man. We are constantly asking ourselves who we are, but we never find an answer.”

The Supreme Court’s legal conclusion on their identity means both personal and official recognition for Sanam. “The Supreme Court has given us a legal identity. We no longer have to choose between genders but can be who we are. Secondly, we are now being recognized by the authorities at all levels. People in the local government have great respect for the Supreme Court. Previously we had great fear of the police and influential people. They ignored us when we reported an incident or wanted to access government services. But thanks to the recent decisions we now can easily access and discuss our problems with them, because they dare go against the Supreme Court.”

Khawaja Sara campaign in Sukkur on International Human Rights Day 2010 for equal treatment. ©Sanam Faqueer

While she didn’t finish high school herself, Sanam is trying to break that cycle in an effort to change the way Khawaja Sara  are perceived by society. Last year she handed out aid to the flood victims in her district and in 2009 she participated in a  cricket match between men and Khawaja Sara. “We beat those guys easily,” she says, clearly still enjoying the achievement. Sanam is urging young Khawaja Sara to also behave in a way that demands respect from the society, thereby changing the public’s perception of them. “Above all you should try to go to school. As difficult as it might be, stay at home until you’ve finished your school so you can work amongst the general population and make a contribution to society. Now is the time, because the Supreme Court has given instructions to the government to help us gain better access to education.” For those who are kicked out of their house Sanam envisions care homes for young Khawaja Sara so that they can keep studying. “And if a young Khawaja Sara is being denied access by the school itself they can come to me. As focal person for the provincial government we will try to solve the issue.  If necessary, we’ll go back to the Supreme Court.”


Bram Steenhuisen is a freelance journalist, photographer, and videographer based in Thailand. He focuses on social and political developments in (South/Southeast) Asia. Bram has a background in television production for various Endemol infotainment programs and MTV News. He holds a diploma in Journalism (SvJ, Utrecht), a BA in politics and development (SOAS, University of London), and an MA in Human Rights (University of Essex). He has worked for different NGOs in Thailand and Pakistan from early 2008 until mid-2011. Bram has spent almost four years living and working in South/Southeast Asia.




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