From Sacred to Shunned: The Khwaja Sira and trans rights in Pakistan

As videos of police violence spread across American social media in the summer of 2020, Julie Khan’s name was popping up in feeds across South Asia. The Pakistani trans rights activist’s profile rose along with the popularity of The Centrum Media web series, “Naked Truth,” which she used to unravel discrimination and question the deep cultural roots of transphobia. Shared widely on Facebook and viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube, Khan’s videos captivated audiences with her dissection of everything from gender roles to poverty to Islam. She called out deep discriminations with roots in the same colonial system that served as a building block for American racism.

In one of her early videos, about the abuse of trans people in homes and workspaces, Khan describes the harassment manual laborers deal out toward trans workers who try to avoid sex work, one of the few areas of regular income for trans Pakistanis, and make a living by other means. Ridiculed by her fellow workers, who taunt her with slurs and ask how much she charges for one night, and propositioned by the site leader, she wonders, “what answer can I give him?”

She speaks without mincing her words and without worrying whom the truth will offend. Once a sex worker who fled her childhood home in the city of Sialkot to escape an abusive uncle, she now commands a unique platform — her top videos garner hundreds of thousands of views — on traditional and social media. 

Khan’s rising fame, and representation by Hassan Niazi, a prominent lawyer, launched her Aug. 10 arrest, after a fake police report, into the news in a way that discrimination against the Khwaja Sira community — an umbrella term in Urdu for transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people often referred to as a “third gender” — never had before. But despite protests at Islamabad’s National Press Club and online campaigns demanding “justice for Julie,” the process for her freedom was slow — it took a week for her to be released from the men’s prison where she was held.

Last year wasn’t the first time that Khan was in danger because of her identity — she was the survivor of a public assault case at the hands of a gang leader in 2016 — but due to her newfound platform, her audience was seemingly recognizing her humanity for the first time.

Julie Khan in 2019

The difference in reaction speaks to the way trans people are seen within Pakistan’s social fabric. Humanity has long been disassociated from trans and nonbinary people in Pakistan in an effort to other them. 

When TCM gave Khan a platform, she became one of the most prominent members of a stalwart group that has worked consistently to change social perceptions of and demand legal rights for trans people. The latter effort came to some fruition in 2018 with the passing of Pakistan’s Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, considered by some to be among the most progressive trans rights bills in the world. Trans activist Mehrab Jameel, who helped write the bill, called it “unprecedented in Pakistani history.”

But turning law into practice and turning rights into acceptance have proven to be hard; as with other struggles against discrimination worldwide, the Khwaja Sira’s journey is a treacherous, unfinished one.

Mughal Empowerment, British Oppression

South Asian societies have had a volatile relationship with their trans citizens, a whiplash-inducing timeline that extends back centuries.

The Khwaja Sira community dates back to the Mughal Empire, the 16th- to 19th-century power centered in India, and the term Khwaja Sira itself stems from when the word — derived from Urdu and Farsi — was used as a title for trans, castrated, and gender nonconforming officials in the Mughal court. 

The place of the Khwaja Sira within the Mughal empire is largely unique in Pakistani — and global — history. They were elevated to advisory and leadership roles in royal business and in the lofty Mughal harems, and in the words of modern Khwaja Sira activist and lawyer Nisha Rao, were “trusted and respected” in one of the great empires of the early modern world.

They lost their imperial function and higher status upon the British East India company’s colonization of the Indian subcontinent. Under colonial rule in 1871, the Criminal Tribes Act (CTC) was introduced, and with it came a Crown-backed wave of discrimination. 

Under a very British definition of gender binaries, Khwaja Sira were criminalized. Wearing female clothing was a punishable offense for men and homosexuality was outlawed. It essentially codified gender norms, and while the CTC no longer exists in now-independent Pakistan, a colonial hangover lingers and remnants of the law have been woven into society.

“People describe us as if we are a punishment from God, and say that our community is a reminder of Qiyamat (Judgement Day) because we are seen as cross dressers, or engage in sex work,” said Nadeem Kashish, a politician, radio host, and trans rights activist. “But why are we singled out for punishment when we are often forced into such lifestyles out of necessity? While others engage by choice and seem to get away without the same judgement.”

Kashish is alluding to the fact that begging, doing sex work, and entertaining at weddings remain the few jobs open to Khwaja Sira, who are hired for little else.

But by global standards, the 2018 bill on the protection of transgender rights is revolutionary; it was preceded by a Supreme Court ruling in 2009 that allows transgender people in Pakistan to be identified on government-issued materials as a third gender. But while this ruling is crucial to preserving the Khwaja Sira identity, as Kashish notes, it does not guarantee systemic social support.

“Lesbian, gay and bisexual are all sexual [orientations], but our being trans is a gender identity. They cannot be lumped together.”

Julie Khan

There are basically two mainstream social attitudes towards Khwaja Siras in Pakistan: conservative groups use religious interpretations to shun trans people for not conforming to a gender binary, while the liberal population defines a lot of its understanding of allyship by western ideals of trans rights, often included under the umbrella of LGBTQ+ rights.

However, for Kashish and Julie Khan, the western acronym doesn’t exactly fit the complexity of the Khwaja Sira experience. 

“Lesbian, gay and bisexual are all sexual [orientations], but our being trans is a gender identity. They cannot be lumped together” Khan said.

And the English word trans often fails to capture the nuances of the Khwaja Sira identity for Kashish. She believes they are a separate third gender, and should be recognized as such, as they were in Mughal times.

While both Kashish and Khan often use the word ‘trans,’ their usage reflects their need to be understood by the rest of a society that imposes its own lens of understanding on the Khwaja Sira, rather than listening to their needs. For them, the term Khwaja Sira is more inclusive and nuanced.

The Khwaja Sira persecution that started under British rule has long benefited privileged groups that can now get away with acts of violence toward, financial abuse of, and control over trans people in Pakistan because they have nowhere else to go. 

Fighting Systemic Injustice, Within and Without

Weeks after Khan’s arrest and the attention it drew, Gul Panah, a trans woman hired as a dancer at a wedding party, was assaulted by attendees and killed. Media coverage of it did not last long, leaving only a few allies and trans people to decry Panah’s killing, the latest act of violence in a generational line of attacks. Khan’s case, given broad attention because of her platform, remained an exception, not a rule.

“There’s a big part of the media that keeps talking about how we are harassed, and murdered and how bechara [pity-worthy] we are, but no more than that,” Nadeem Kashish said. “People keep saying that we also should be normalized into society, but no one actually wants to work for that to happen.”

It is activists like Khan, Kashish, and Nisha Rao who have fought to make sure that the new generation of trans people in Pakistan do not face the same difficulties they did.

Nadeem Kashish at the 2020 Justice for Julie protest in Islamabad.

Among the efforts they’ve undertaken: speaking out against Guru culture, whereby trans and nonbinary children who are cast out by their families are somewhat adopted by community leaders known as Gurus, who provide food and shelter for them in exchange for power over their finances and life decisions.

This forced financial dependence for younger members of the Khwaja Sira community keeps the cycle going and solidifies the Gurus’ financial privilege.

It is a system so strong that those who don’t ascribe to it are all but shunned from “accepted” trans circles, and those involved in Guru culture have suggested that they “don’t recognize” trans people who reject Gurus.

Khan says that this Guru “mafia” needs to be held accountable. And the killing of Gul Panah is a place to start.

“She’d been getting threats for 3 days but no one did anything. Shouldn’t the ones who claim to assume power and award protection then take responsibility?” says Khan. Gul Panah was supposed to be under the protection of Gurus — as one of their chelas, a young trans person taken under a Guru’s wing — who were nowhere to be found when it came to questioning the circumstances of her death.

After her August arrest, Khan’s lawyer Hassaan Niazi said that he was worried that the only reason she was still alive was because of the fame and support she had amassed on social media. 

And law enforcement has demonstrated a willingness to look the other way in matters of trans violence: Rather than look into allegedly fake police complaint filed against Khan, Islamabad police suggested that the issue was an “internal matter” within the community. 

That “internal matter” was the alleged assault of Khan and her friend Rosy at the hands of five other women, whom Niazi claims were supporters of Gurus threatened by Khan’s questioning of their system. Days after Khan reported the attack to the police, a trans supporter of a local Guru responded by accusing Khan of assaulting and robbing her.

Acting on that report, police officers broke into Khan’s house without warning, accused her of evading arrest, and beat her — only to dub it an “internal matter” after Khan, still bruised and bloodied by the police assault, had spent eight days in a men’s jail. 

The state’s disinterest in tangible justice in Khan’s case exemplifies just how dismissable the government deems the Khwaja Sira community. Because of the unchecked control of the Guru mafia, Saba, Rosy’s Guru, has said she and other trans people around her face greater danger inside their community than outside of it.

Activist and politician Nadeem Kashish, all too familiar with the dual internal and external oppression of the trans community, has taken it upon herself to challenge existing systems in all their forms. She works with trans people who want help building lives independent from the Guru system. But a long history of being silenced, when it comes to social and economic inclusion, means that they have limited channels and often lack the financial freedom to integrate into social circles. That bottleneck couples with economic burdens to force trans people back into lives they meant to leave. 

Founding a shelter as part of her work as director of SAFFAR — Shemale Association For Fundamental Rights — was Kashish’s attempt to empower Khwaja Siras in the country at a grassroots level, challenging the Gurus’ chokehold on trans employment. SAFFAR’s shelter houses trans people excluded from their families, help them find jobs and become financially independent. 

Kashish has also taken aim at external oppression, as one of the country’s first transgender politicians, and in 2018 ran for the same Islamabad-based parliamentary seat as now-Prime Minister Imran Khan in the national elections. 

“Only now, with the participation of transgender people, will democracy be complete” she said at the time. 

And while Kashish’s work is disruptive to the political system from the outside, others are taking an inside-out approach.

“Change cannot be taught when we are old and gray. It is the system that needs to support us from the time we are children and currently the system fails to do it.”

Nadeem Kashish

Nisha Rao, the first trans woman in Pakistan to become a lawyer, jumped into the legal world motivated to help trans people understand their rights when faced with jail and police abuse. With few allies willing to fight for them legally, trans people can rarely afford bail, she says, and “are rarely educated enough to fight for ourselves. That needs to change if we want to guarantee better lives for trans people in Pakistan.” 

Rao has fought over 50 cases for the trans community in Pakistan, and many have shared that they often reach out to her in times of trouble. Her skills as a lawyer are not just for trans people alone and Jeya, a victim of harassment, said she wanted Rao to fight her case because she felt she would understand her plight. 

Rao is toiling in the same official channels as Reem Sharif, who gained recognition as Pakistan’s first transgender police officer, a “trans victim support office.” But even in that example of evolution — a trans person involved in changing the approach of an institution that has long abused trans people — Rao has found limits to her optimism about government as an agent of progress. 

She visited Sharif and found her without a uniform or training in her role, which Rao judged to be simply temporary, honorary. That’s not the kind of change that either seeks.

“It’s not just the police or courts,” she said. “The problem goes beyond that into larger society who continue to see trans people as below them, or being unworthy of respect.” 

So while fighting trans oppression in government, Rao has taken her legal experience and visibility as a trailblazer and turned it toward another systemic change avenue: NGOs. Trans Pride Society, an organization Rao founded, takes the grassroots approach of Kashish’s shelter and layers in visibility and storytelling, trying to reshape the narratives told about the trans community. In the last year, Rao appeared on the main stage of a TEDx event in Karachi to discuss trans rights and was profiled by Reuters.

Raising the profile of the trans community is Rao’s short-term goal but she has long-term intentions to break another barrier — she wants to someday be Pakistan’s first transgender judge. 

What’s next

Nearly a year after the protests around Khan’s arrest, Trans Pride Society launched a sewing shop in Karachi, the only shop of its kind in the world’s 12th-largest city. The tangible progress of a trans-led sewing shop was a long-time project for Rao, providing crucial technical and vocational skills and a safe space for the trans community. 

The shop’s employees represent the depth and breadth of the Khwaja Sira — one tailoress, Khushi, had been begging and doing sex work before friends and family learned of her sewing skills and she had an opportunity to hone her talent. Now, she is an integral member of the shop, much like seamstress Jiah, a former dancer who helped lead its push to open and do robust sales ahead of Ramadan.

With the tailor shop generating media attention and fighting to become self-sustaining, Rao and TPS have turned to plans for a restaurant and a vocational center. Meanwhile, Kashish has been pushing for parliamentary support for SAFFAR in the hopes that if it is registered as an official shelter home, it will allow for more official channels to redirect trans youth to such spaces rather than to guru-led communities.

“Change cannot be taught when we are old and gray,” Kashish said of her efforts. “It is the system that needs to support us from the time we are children and currently the system fails to do it.”

Julie Khan, too, has started to move on from last summer’s tumult — she signed off of “The Naked Truth” with a final video on March 11, remarking that the series had changed her life. 

“This was a turning point,” she said. “The Almighty granted me respect and I think a lot of people who saw my videos gained a sense of practical judgement.”

“The Naked Truth” saw its viewership dwindle as the series came to a close, and #JusticeForJulie has faded from social media feeds. But she continues to clash with the Guru mafia, calling out their oppression and the abuse of trans people on her Facebook and YouTube feeds and in guest appearances in other media

Khan added in her final “Naked Truth” video that she wanted to “inspire individual struggle in the hopes of making people’s lives easier.” This ignition of awareness, for trans people and allies alike, has been a broad first step in the centuries-long battle for Khwaja Sira rights. But it is only the first step. 

Not unlike the slogan “no justice, no peace” that echoed around American cities in 2020, a simple phrase atop Khan’s Facebook page encapsulates the last year.

“Transgender needs right [sic] not sympathy.”

Funded by the generosity of Ruth Ann Harnisch and Sunday Long Read members. Photography by Javaria Waseem, edited by Peter Bailey-Wells, and designed by Anagha Srikanth.