Interview: Sexuality in Pakistan - Nighat Said Khan

What is the situation regarding sexuality in Pakistan? 

When you talk of sexuality, there is somehow no acknowledgement of desire, even for heterosexuality in Pakistan. Even if you have desire, you don’t talk about it. At the same time the State is preoccupied with women’s bodies, what you wear, and so on. 

There is a whole community of gay men, somewhat underground, but nevertheless, they have relationships, have clubs, groups and are part of discussion forums. They are more acceptable in more progressive circles such as the middle class social circles. There is a total silencing of lesbians. I mean you don’t walk in as lesbian couple but you can as a gay couple.

Beyond these categories is the hijra community. Everyone recognizes the hijra community. In general for the public, the ‘dua’ and ‘baddua’ of hijras is very important – the blessing and the curse. So when they come when a child is born or to a wedding, you give them money because you don’t want ‘baddua’, because they are special people whom people believe God has sort of favoured in a way that if they do ‘dua’ for you it’s good for you, if they do ‘baddua’ it can actually harm you. So there is an ambivalent sort of relationship. There are programmes on the television about the hijra community.  Transvestites are looked at similarly as the hijra community – as if they have some biological problem. 

Speaking of TV, isn’t there a show by a transsexual?

That is an entirely different thing. That programme, to my mind, though interesting is extremely negative. In this weekly programme there is this man who is bi-sexual and in fact calls himself try-sexual (try anything). He comes from the upper class, his father is a senior army officer, a Brigadier, from so-called progressive society. Interestingly, he comes on the show dressed entirely as a woman. He takes on the character of a very flirty begum (noblewoman) whose husband has died and she is coy. She flirts with women, with men and they flirt with her. It is almost like a caricature of a woman, derogatory, and has taken up the worst parts of femininity of this modern, progressive woman who sleeps around and is very blasé about multiple lovers etc. However, it is interesting how you wouldn’t get a similar show with a woman playing a man. 

What is the situation for transsexuals?

When you come to sexual identities and genders you get a whole variation. We didn’t realize it until Shahzina Tariq and Shumail Raj’s case. There are a lot of female to male transsexuals but it was completely hidden. But, I found out that there is a clinic in almost every town and in some cases two or three. These are private clinics and they will not exist if they were not in demand. Clearly, they have enough of a clientele, both male and female. They run these, and transgendered people obviously have these operations and then they live like males in society and nobody knows. While dealing with this case we found out that there are many famous female to male lawyers and doctors. 

Female to male transgenders are more invisible than male to female in Pakistan? 

Yes, I think I could pass as one. If one has a certain male physique and suppose I get a mastectomy done, had hormonal treatment, a beard, and in any case I have short hair, I am sure I could pass. One would just merge into society. Whereas for male to female transgenders, sometimes if they are big and tall it is more obvious. 

In this particular case, Shumail was able to pass as a man, when he went to college or in the place of his employment. His work entailed buying and selling properties. He was completely convinced he wanted to be a man. Somewhere around the way he himself made that decision. When he was 15 years old he had a mastectomy done. He says he had no hormonal treatment though.

How did his family react? 

His father was almost violently against him saying ‘You are not a man’. They didn’t mind it when he was a kid. When he was 15, his breasts started to grow, and he started getting uncomfortable with his body. It is courageous that he told his parents when most people stay silent and suffer for the rest of their lives. He talked about it. He expressed his desire. And he took on the pressure of the father. He is a very confident young man and had absolutely no doubt in his mind. Somewhere along the way he decided he had to have a mastectomy. He continued to live in the house. His mother and siblings seem to have accepted it. At some point, Shumail had a hysterectomy as well.

How would most people have reacted? 

It’s quite common for parents to make a boy into a girl, and a girl into a boy especially if there are no sons. In villages it’s quite common that they start saying ‘puttar’ (son) to a daughter. And these girls start speaking in the masculine gender, wearingsalwar kameez, playing cricket, it is not such a big deal. May be it would be a bigger deal if a boy clings to his mother and wants to cook. 

Then what happened? What was the trouble all about?

And then he became friendly with his cousin, Shahzina. And that is part of the problem because it was all within the family. Shahzina and Shumail had discussed his condition. Shumail’s had said that he can’t have children and that he would have an operation to remove his vagina. It was just a technicality as far as their relationship was concerned. They secretly got a nikah(wedding) done last year. Meanwhile Shahzina’s father started pushing her to get married, which is very common in society ki shaadi kar lo beti, woh banda acha hai, iska yeh hai, iska woh hai(get married, my girl, that chap is nice, he has this, he has that…). Shaadi (marriage) is a must. And she had somebody come for rishta, a proposal, and she said no to him, and then to another. She told her father that she wanted to marry Shumail. Shahzina actually thought that her father would accept and have a proper marriage. Her father threw a fit as he knew about Shumail. And that’s when they declared that they were already married. They started living together. Shahzina’s father started harassing them. He is a trade union leader and so he also knew the police.

So Shumail and Shahzina went to a Court in Faisalabad. They produced their nikahnama (wedding certificate) in front of the judge. The law says that a marriage with a girl who is 18years or above is considered legitimate. No judge can challenge it. The judge saw the nikahnama and asked the father to stop harassing them as it was valid marriage. As the father continued to harass them, they came to Lahore and filed a writ petition in the Lahore High Court. But they hadn’t told their lawyer about Shumail’s condition.

Shahzina’s father went to the Court and said that Shahzina had married a woman. 

The judge ordered to the bailiff to take Shumail to the hospital instantly. By law actually you cannot force someone for a medical examination without their consent. However, they examined him and said on the face of it that he is female. But they did say that there were other tests required. It was then that the Court demanded ‘show cause’ as to why he should not be prosecuted under Section 377 ( the Sodomy Law) and for perjury because he had lied in court that he was a man. Shumail then admitted in Court that he was a woman. 

During those Court hearings, an NGO told them that they could get them to run away and give them asylum. Shumail and Shahzina actually believed this and didn’t show up in court for couple of hearings, which was a bad mistake. The judge lost his temper and ordered them to be arrested for failing to come to the Court. That’s when I read in a newspaper that they had come to Lahore. 

What exactly drew you to their case? 

A genuine belief in the rights of gays, lesbians, and transsexuals. I remember as a child, that there was a girl who lived across the street and was at school with me. Suddenly her parents started seeing her as a boy and placed her in a different school. My parents were very liberal and my mother told us that this happens. Later, I was in the United States for a long time and there was this case of a male to female transsexual. It was much publicised because he was a major journalist, everybody knew about him and he had written books on India. 

Human rights activists and feminists all over the world have been taking positions on gender but yet still thinking of binary construction. They didn’t even get the simple concept that you can be born male and gendered as female. So even in the minimalist definition gender has four possibilities but this hasn’t yet registered. With all my exposure and reading and interacting I think I took it more seriously and got involved. I internalised what I was learning. Lesbianism I am familiar with. It’s my own identity. 

What happened next with Shumail and Shahzina? 

I was surprised by the lack of support from feminist and human rights groups, because in principle, they all agreed to the rights of all people and so I assumed they would be supportive. 

Shahzina and Shumail could afford only a small time lawyer. I realised that they needed a serious lawyer especially with this judge. They needed somebody with stature and if the judge was barking the law, the lawyer would have to bark back. So I got someone who is a former judge and has a big name in Lahore. He is also a Supreme Court lawyer. Before we found him I had to go to them in jail to get their power of attorney. It took me 8 hours to get to see Shumail as I was not his family member, nor was I a lawyer, so, my locus standi was questionable. 

With the new lawyer, the judge had to take the case more seriously. And he said Section 377 was not applicable. And that’s when we realised that there was no case law in Pakistan on Section 377. The existing case law is British and has never been used in Pakistan. It’s premised on penetration, so it’s premised on a penis. 

I wonder how they form these laws… 

The law is very strange in the reading. For me it reinforces the absurdity of the State and how stupid this law is and so we challenged that. The other thing we found in our favour is that Islam is silent on the issue. So this couldn’t become a religious issue. Islam or the Quran makes reference to Sodom, the implication being that in Islam, God is not too happy with this, but there is no punishment. So Islam could not be used. Now Section 377 and religion could not be used against them. Earlier they were charged for 7 years for perjury and then it came down to 3 years in jail each, one in a prison in Faisalabad and the other in Lahore. They are out now. So then of course I immediately decided to appeal to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, I kept going to the jails to provide them moral support, to ensure they had money, clothes etc. 

What happened then? Did other people come in to support them?

I got in touch with eminent lawyers. I assumed they would take the case but they said it was too controversial. I thought they would at least give me some legal advice, even if they did not want to come to the Court. There was no support coming from human rights groups and feminist circles. It was discussed at the Women’s Action Forum and they agreed it was terrible and that we must give social, legal, moral and financial support. Having said that, there was no support forthcoming even when the sentence was about to be passed. The lawyer was handling the case pro bono but there are court fees and other expenses.

Meanwhile, Shahzina’s father was putting a lot of pressure on Shahzina through the jail authorities. I had to keep going there to counter his pressure. Shahzina and Shumail were very anxious. There were times when Shazina was uncertain. But I must say that she has stuck it out. Meanwhile the Court had ordered that Shumail go for further medical examination. He said he will not go to a doctor but to a psychiatrist. The Court then recommended him to meet a very well known psychiatrist. The tests concluded that Shumail did not show any disturbance. 

Then I got an even better lawyer. For the Supreme Court I wanted a lawyer who would understand transgender issues. Someone who would see to it that Shumail wouldn’t be labelled ‘mad’ and be sent to a mental hospital. In the Supreme Court again, everyone wanted to know who I was. Although it was tiring, I actually appreciate this about the jail authorities and the Court because I could have been anyone – a trafficker, or someone running a prostitution den. 

We needed to go public on this issue to get public support but nobody wanted to come with me to the press conference. Nobody! No women’s rights activists or human rights groups. They again said it was too controversial. So when I went to the press conference it was me and my organization, the ASR Resource Centre. We had discussed this a lot among ourselves and everyone at ASR was supportive. We work in eight districts and so even our districts got involved in this. In principle, we had agreed that we support the rights of marginalised sexualities. And, we took it very seriously. So we had no problem within our organisation. Nobody at our district level said that we don’t want to identify with your organisation because it makes it difficult for us.

How did the press conference go off? 

When we had this press conference some press did attack me. Some were sympathetic. But some of them said ‘yeh gunaah hai’ (this is a sin), ‘you are supporting gunaah’ (sin). I said I don’t know whether it is gunaah or not. Whatever it is, that’s between them and God. I said that murder is gunaah, stealing is gunaah, corruption is gunaah and as far as I was concerned thegunaahgaars (sinners) are all sitting in Parliament and they need to be caught. What crime did Shumail and Shahzina commit when they did not harm anybody?

Then there was also the attack that I was anti-Islam. I said giving false testimony, accusing people wrongly, is gunaah in theQuran. However, the next day the press, wasn’t antagonistic at all. That’s when I realised that some part of the press is sympathetic. The headlines and the English press were referring to it as same sex marriage or same sex couple but the text was not so aggressive. In Urdu there is no translation of the term same-sex marriage. You have to make full sentences to convey it and that doesn’t make a headline. No maulvi spoke against me or against them. Nobody has said a word. 

Prior to this I would have understood people’s fear of taking a public stand but now, obviously the press was with us and the religious leaders made no opposition. And yet, there was still no support. It had nothing to do with courage. 

What happened at the Supreme Court? 

When I took it to the Supreme Court, I was again, on my own. The minute it started the judge asked what was wrong, why was one in Faisalabad jail and the other in Lahore jail and why was the High Court judge so angry with them.  So our lawyer said we had come to him because we don’t understand why he is so angry with us. So that sort of set the tone. 

The Supreme Court judge was sympathetic and said, ‘I don’t understand what the problem is because our recorded histories do talk about the existence of, say Hermes in Egypt, and other such people. If anything, we should only be sympathetic towards them’. It made for a very good beginning. The judge also said that ‘this Bench takes cognizance of the fact that Shumail and Shahzina’s privacy has been invaded’. The Court said that nobody had any right to invade the privacy of a person. Our lawyer also admitted the mistakes that Shumail and Shahzina had committed, like not appearing for some earlier hearings. He is a politician and is also very dramatic. So he said ‘My Lord, now I close my law books and speak from my heart. I speak as a human being and I speak as a father. It could happen to any of us’. He went into explaining about transgender issues, multiple sexualities and transsexualities. He gave the example of his son who went to a college where a female became male and got a degree as a man. He went on to say to the judge, ‘Yeh to hamare chappe chappe pe bacchey is tarah pale jatey hain’ (This is the way children grow up all over the place here). 

The appeal was heard. The Court ordered that they be released from the jails. It took me some time to get the bail order. Shahzina’s father was not interested in getting her out. There were also problems with police station to get them out of jail. Shumail also has three other cases against him – the petition and a case for kidnapping and one for fraud. I didn’t want him arrested immediately for another case and was trying bail before arrest. They are out now and are with me. There are groups which keep suggesting they leave the country. And I tell them not to take the easy way out but to think and talk to embassies. Meanwhile they don’t have a passport. The judge has put them on something they call ‘exit control list’ which means they cannot leave the country. So it is complicated. There is still a threat from Shahzina’s father. We have a residential space in the office and they actually live there. We have got armed security now and have put grills in our office. Once her father arrived at 2 in the morning with guns but luckily our guard had a bigger gun and was able to get him to leave. 

NGOs are not willing to help and support even now. We are the ones who should create the space, who should give them jobs. Especially now since the public and media has been supportive. Feminists complain about the media sensationalising the case, but they themselves were sensationalising it by saying that Shahzina’s father was selling her to a man who he owed money to, which was completely incorrect. They could have verified the facts from me. 

There have been supportive letters and articles coming. If Shumail re-enters society now, we should be able to create opportunities for him. I thought if the Supreme Court doesn’t take the appeal then the next step would be to petition the President and for that letters of support would be useful. I also kept trying to cheer them up during the process by telling them that letters of support have been coming as I didn’t want them to commit suicide in jail. There were not many letters forthcoming. I got a few after a lot of bullying. I didn’t get many letters even from human rights and women’s rights activists in India.

It raises a lot of questions for the women’s movement in India. 

I feel we have been challenging institutions all our lives. In one go, they have challenged their family, society, law, religion, and the State, and have opened it all up for us.
While feminists and women’s rights activists are busy attending conferences and writing papers there is still no support for Shumail and Shahzina. The only job offer is from Nestlé. So, while a multinational is ready to provide the space, feminists and human rights groups are saying they have nothing to do with it. So it’s a very odd situation, with politician, lawyers, psychiatrists and doctors supporting us, but not many women’s and human rights groups. It could be because of some discomfort. In fact, if they meet Shumail, in two minutes they would forget that he is a transgendered person. Because their mind is going into graphic details that he also has a vagina, they can’t deal with it. 

The problem is that people are very conscious of LGBT people only as sexual people. They think LGBT people only have sex and no other relationship. It’s like saying that we are sympathetic and we respect their privacy ‘in the bedrooms’. The implication is that they do nothing else and perhaps their only need is the bedroom. One can’t engage with them beyond that bedroom. 

So there is no engagement with sexuality at all in the women’s movement, apart from this case? 

That’s the disadvantage. But, I don’t let them go. I keep bringing it up. I keep challenging it. I keep making them uncomfortable. They make me go in to details about my own past. They say they have been very supportive towards me. When I went to them with a problem, they have listened. But, I didn’t see them treating me and my partner (I had a partner years ago) normally, like inviting us for dinner together. The space that they gave us was, you could do what you like in a bedroom and we appreciate it and we respect it. They never considered that there may be a range of problems that lesbians face. No one is willing to consider that. What it means to be silenced, what it meant not to have a partner, not be recognised. What it means when you can’t go with your partner to social occasions. I mean all sorts of daily things.

There is no institutional support for these relationships and so they tend to break up much more. They have nothing going for them. When I say this, they think that Nighat is going through some personal problem, we must help her. They would say that they were supportive of the right to equality. My question is, equality – for whom? As far as citizens are concerned, in this country, everyone whether they are heterosexual or homosexual has the same rights, except the right to marriage. But even for heterosexual women, the right to marriage is restricted for Muslim women. They cannot marry outside Islam. Are we then asking for rights of a lesbian to marry with similar restrictions? Are we asking for every woman to have the right to marriage? Legally she has the right but society doesn’t give that right. 

What might be a good way to work for rights? 

We cannot simply ask for rights because rights will be very generic. One needs to engage with people to know what their problems are. For instance, rights of hijras. We don’t know whether they need rights in terms of surgery. Should the State pay for it? Will clinics be open for it? Will it be some street-side castration? If we don’t engage with their problem, don’t know what their lives are like, what are the impediments they face, we cannot ask for rights. They have the legal right to work anywhere or to go to schools. But do they get accepted in schools or do they get jobs? Few weeks ago, a hijra said on TV, ‘Although we also want to go to school, our families throw us out of home. If we are from the upper class, we are kept hidden. But if we are not, then we are left in the streets to find our own community. We are not literate, so who will give us jobs?’ The reporter sympathetically told the hijra that if he tried someone would give him a job. So the hijra retorted ‘Why don’t you give us a job in your television channel?’ What was interesting was that this part was not edited out of the programme. 

In another channel, they showed a small shot with a transsexual putting on lipstick, a drug addict lying somewhere and there were some other visuals and underneath these visuals was the caption, ‘They too have rights’. So the media is being supportive and yet there are groups locked in space, not looking at it at all. A lot has changed. There is so much discussion on TV, in the press and among the public. NGOs say that society does not accept hijras. They are the society. Why don’t they give them jobs?

What are their future plans? 

Shumail and Shahzina are still living in our office premises and we cannot keep them indefinitely as we need that room for our own training etc. It’s mind boggling but I don’t know what to do and I can’t advise them on what to do. How can I assure them that people are willing to help when nobody is coming forward? So it is a very tricky situation. 

They have a Supreme Court appeal. Our lawyer has to fight at different levels which I think he is confident about. If they leave the country now they will become absconders and can never come back to the country. So I am not encouraging them to leave now, not until the appeal. Not until they are cleared. Shumail is also keen to help others in his position and is seeing it as a larger issue. We also want to contest the legality of his not being able to change his identity. That would be a public interest litigation on his behalf. A lot of people have come out in the process. Hijras have also gotten in touch with us. 

Thank you, it has been wonderful talking to you. I am totally in awe of you and Shumail and Shahzina… amazing courage, it takes a lot to come out like that. Thank you very much.


About ASR
ASR is a feminist, socialist organisation. For the past 25 years it has been working on fighting against militarisation and islamicisation. It works specifically with women’s groups, the peasantry, religious minorities and especially the dalit community. It also works in Kashmir. ASR is very active on peace issues especially between India and Pakistan. 

ASR acts as a catalyst, a network and a resource centre for several women’s groups, social action groups, theatre and other communication groups, trade unions and peasant organisations in terms of trying to link them to each other and also to link smaller initiatives/groups to larger and more ‘established’ ones. ASR produces audiovisual materials and has its own film unit. It also translates and publishes material in Urdu and English. To make art more accessible and to bridge the gap between fiction, academia and art, ASR has used art works of women artists for covers of its publications. Besides this, the work of feminist artists is also printed in the form of posters and cards for wider dissemination. At present ASR is the only alternative feminist publisher in Pakistan, with a list of over 70 titles. ASR also tries to demystify writing and assists women to develop this form of expression. 

Nighat Said Khan is the Director of ASR Resource Centre, Pakistan. She is the Dean of the Institute of Women’s Studies, Lahore which is a South Asian Institute. She has been involved with the women’s movement, human rights movement, people’s rights and the peasantry. She combines her academic work with her activism.