ILF: Hijra to jirga

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Shiza Malik

The third ILF became a battleground for conflicting perspectives on gender issues with heated debate taking place in the sessions, sometimes even between panellists and audience members. The sessions brought together various voices, from the most marginalised to the privileged, such as veteran politician Syeda Abida Hussain who narrated her experiences of traversing the patriarchal world of Pakistani politics. The daughter of one of the country’s most prominent landlords, Hussain was pushed into the feudal society of rural Jhang at the age of 25 when she lost her father. There was not a dull moment as Hussain narrated colourful anecdotes from her book Power Failure: The Political Odyssey of a Pakistani Woman with her signature charm and humour.

However, the real success of the festival organisers lay in managing to bring the voices of gender minorities to the fore. As Supreme Court advocate Hina Jilani said in a session, “The rights of sexual minorities cannot be excluded from the human rights discourse”.

In two sessions, transgender rights activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, author of Me Laxmi, Me Hijra, discussed semantics of transgender identity and highlighted the painful experience of discrimination and abuse faced by transgender individuals.

In the session titled ‘He, She, or … ’ she rejected the words eunuch and transgender and argued these words are inadequate to describe the South Asian hijra or khawaja sara. She explained that while eunuch means a castrated man, transgender is a European word which reflects a conflict between gender identity and the assigned sex. “Hijra can be defined as the oldest ethnic transgender group which has its own distinct culture,” she said.

Discussing the history of the hijra community she said the word khawaja sara has Sufi connotations, as it means those who follow the way of the khawaja (master). “Before the advent of Europeans in India, Hijras were trusted by society. We were soldiers, guardians of harems and advisors to kings but the Europeans could not understand us and drove us to the periphery of society,” she said. Laxmi eloquently developed the argument that the transgender life is motivated by honesty. “I had the soul of a woman and the body of man. I did not want to live a double life. But for being honest, we have to beg for someone to lead our funeral prayers,” she said.

Contrarily, researcher on gender-related issues, Sheherbano Khan in the session entitled ‘Rights and Wrongs of Transgender Issues’ argued that hijras live beyond the periphery of society. “Because they don’t count,” she said. She said that the transgendered body is a site of contestation because it does not comply with the gender binaries of man and woman, and transgender individuals are viewed by society as sexual deviants. As Khan continued to share her viewpoint, theatre director Madiha Gohar interjected from the audience by saying that rather than elitist voices, those of other panellists should be allowed space at the forum. “I am a proud elitist,” Khan retorted.

Laxmi expressed disagreement with much of what Khan said and rejected the idea that the hijra body reflects a conflict between gender identities of man and woman. She said that as a transgender, she is the link between the man and woman. Moderator, gender studies professor and rights activist, Farzana Bari, said society views gender in binaries but it is best understood as a continuum which may transition from one to another without necessarily falling into either.

Supreme Court Advocate Hina Jilani said that transgender individuals are visible in society, but never in dignified contexts. As the discussion veered towards legal rights of transgender individuals, Jilani said: “while all of us have struggled for human rights, there is no struggle as painful as the struggle for the rights of sexual minorities”. She said the 2009 Supreme Court verdict which recognised the rights of the transgender individuals used derogatory terms such as ‘shemale’. “Similarly, making them go through a medical check-up before issuing an identity card invites humiliation,” she said.

Khan said that in her research she had found the 2009 Supreme Court verdict allowing transgender individuals to disassociate themselves from the binaries of man and woman was violated and denied. Transgender rights activist Bubbly Malik also contended that while the state recognised the third gender through the verdict, putting khwaja sara-man and khwaja sara-woman on the national identity card reflects a lack of understanding of the transgender identity. However, an agreement emerged from the session that the choice to define one’s gender is a personal one, beyond the purview of the state. “It is a right to self-determination,” Jilani said.

As the other panellists discussed the role of the state and the effectiveness of law, academic and activist Aasim Sajjad Akhtar said “it is natural to demand from the state and look towards laws for protection but I don’t trust the state. There is such a long history of the state trampling over the rights of ordinary human beings in the name of law, reason and rationality. So the debate must not only revolve around legal issues”. He saw patriarchy in society as the main reason for gender-based marginalisation. “Unfortunately, patriarchy even flourishes among the well-educated,” he said.

As if to illustrate his point, in a later session, panellist Sultan-i-Rome who has written books on the cultural traditions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa defended the tradition of Swara (settlement of disputes through marriage). “Swara is misunderstood by people; it is an extension of arranged marriage which is a hallmark of Pakhtun culture. People talk about how it is an injustice to the woman but no one takes the consent of a man in such a marriage either,” he contended.

His words drew strong reactions from the audience members who began speaking out of turn to decry his ideas. It was ironic that a session on Khewendo Jirga, the first women’s jirga in Swat, formed by women to carve out a space for themselves in a culture where they were neither audible nor visibly, was hijacked by patriarchal voices. Sultan-i-Rome called into question the legitimacy of the women’s jirga by arguing that a jirga is never registered and this initiative is bound to become another NGO. A heated debate ensued between audience members and the men on the panel.

Panellist Shirin Gul, who manages and conducts research on gender, summarised the events well when she said, “women’s voices were not even allowed space at this forum which is reflective of the need for a women’s jirga. This initiative should be seen as the first step in Swat towards women being given a space for discourse and it should be appreciated”.

In Islamabad, a city home to the burgeoning development sector and numerous policy think-tanks, gender is a widely discussed topic. The discourse, however, is almost always dominated by elite voices of the academics and development practitioners. While at the ILF too, these voices spoke louder than those of the more marginalised, the space offered to transgender activists such as Malik and Tripathi was heartening. And it was their poignant tales of exclusion and discrimination which resounded in the hearts of all who listened; louder than theory and more powerful than dictum.

Shiza Malik, “ILF: Hijra to jirga,” in Dawn, May 3, 2015. Accessed on May 3, 2015, at:

The item above written by Shiza Malik and published in Dawn on May 3, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on May 3, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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