Issue in Focus : The world of Zenanas - Tahir Khilji

If it is a male child, go and announce it to one and all and take something sweet with you because a boy has come into this world. If it is a female child, there is no need of any joy, go back to your work; I will take care of her. And if it is a zenana, go throw it in the river near by, it is better for it to drown than to live a life of misery and misfortune.’

Tahir Khilji

This statement was made by an aqua zenana. It is for the first time in my work of almost 13 years that I am meeting an aqua zenana. In the zenana world, there are three kinds of zenanas, one is acqua, who is born without male genitalia, then there is chibbri, who goes through corrective surgery to get the genitalia of her/his desire and finally there is a zenana who is neither aqua or chibbri but a male who describes himself as a female living in a male body.

In its literal sense, in Urdu1 language, zenana is a term meaning ‘female’ that is still used to distinguish male spaces from female spaces or male characteristics from female characteristics. Thus, it is a way of identification of spaces such as these are the zenana quarters and those are mardana (male) quarters. This word is used mostly in a derogatory sense to identify a male with feminine characteristics. In other words, if some one wants to highlight the ‘effeminate’ behaviour in any male, this word would be used by observers with a certain level of contempt towards that person and the behaviour.

Every June I accompany some of my zenana team members to a shrine close to a hill resort in the foothills of the Himalayas. We do this every June as it is the time of the annual festival at the shrine. We spend close to four days at the shrine. It is that time of the year when we share everything, starting from living spaces to recreational spaces. This may be the only time each year that I get to see the very core of the zenana world.

On the surface, it is all about jealousies and manipulations but scratch the surface and there is compassion, affection, unity, innocence and the spirit to struggle. The four days are a mixture of lots of fun and frolic along with plenty of violence, gang rapes, humiliation and harassment both from the ‘other devotees’ and the law enforcement agencies.

Let us first talk about the fun and frolic. One zenana ritual that has become part of this larger ritual of our four days is the induction of new zenanas and this is how it happens: Upon our arrival, there is the evening of sending out the invitations. It is called illaichi phirana2. Whoever goes out with the invitation tells the other zenanas that on a certain evening there will be the induction of a new zenana in the household of a specific guru3.Some of the gurus from our own team generally have one or two new inductees each year at the shrine (this is apart from those inductees that they bring in the rest of the year). The inductees who are brought into a zenana household during this sacred period are revered4.

On the day of the induction there is a lot of activity. Food is prepared for the guests, with an emphasis on sweet things, as distributing anything sweet is considered appropriate for any joyous occasion.

When the time of induction comes, a little role play is done in front of everyone. It is the same role play each year and each year it pains me with same intensity. The role play goes thus: There is an expectant mother who is screaming because of labour pains. Her female friends are consoling her that soon it will be over. A midwife comes in and announces that it is close to the delivery time. The screams get louder; her legs move apart, and suddenly a little bundle (of cloth) that is considered to be the child comes out; sounds of an infant crying are mimicked by one of the actors. The mother, before anyone else says anything, utters these words, ‘If it is a male child go and announce it to one and all and take something sweet with you because a boy has come into this world. If it is a female child, there is no need of any joy, go back to your work; I will take care of her. And if it is a zenana, go throw it in the river near by, it is better for it to drown than to live a life of misery and misfortune.’

It hurts because it reflects the reality of my society and my role as that of someone who just views it from outside.

We move on to a more cheerful part of the ritual and that is when a young, coy and blushing zenana (a 10 to 12 year old boy) is brought into the room, escorted by some older zenanas. The child is made to sit on a little cushion and a dupatta (a stole), embroidered with gold and silver thread, is held over the child’s head. The dupatta is held by its four corners by four accomplished zenanas, who have their own households now. Along with this there is lots of singing and dancing. The guru who is taking the child into his 5household gets up and feeds the child with some sweet that is already set on a platter. This is the induction of the child into the zenana household6.

The child is now part of the household that has accepted him. If another guru wants to take the child then he has to pay the entire amount that the previous guru may have spent or pay for bringing the child under his wings. Thus, if the child wants to leave the household and move to another household, he has to have the next guru come up with the asking amount that has been put on the child. If the child runs away and another guru takes him in without paying the previous one, then the senior gurus get together to decide the fate of the child and the guru who took him in. Normally the fate is ostracisation7 from the community for a certain period till a penalty8 is paid. Generally, gurus abide by the code of the community.

It is interesting that though the inductee may have become part of the household only on that day, he seems to be quite well-versed in the zenana code of conduct. It never ceases to amaze me how this child knows exactly how to conduct himself in presence of the gurus and other zenanas. In addition to this the child knows the Farsi language9 and is able to go on and on in it with his zenana friends.

The fate of this child is sealed. He will be gang raped, he will be harassed, he will be violated in every sense of the word but he will still not want to leave this one space because this is the space that provides him freedom to be what he wants to be.

This feast is no feast for me and this fun is no fun for me. I try to find someone to put the blame upon but I do not find anyone. I know that if I suggest to the devotees (as an experiment) that we create a space for these children where they can be themselves for may be two hours in a day and then they can go back to the safety (or the lack of it) of their homes, they will not listen.

Therefore, I sit back and tell myself that I am doing my bit, may be a day will dawn when this very community will provide such spaces to children who feel differently without charging them this heavy a price. This community has a lot of empathy. They know exactly how it feels to be ‘that one child’ and they know all the sufferings and longings of ‘that one child’, and therefore they are the best ones to facilitate him through his difficult journey unharmed and unscratched. I assure them that my support will always be with them.

  1. Urdu is the national language of Pakistan. Urdu is a mixture of several other languages such as Persian, Sanskrit and Arabic.
  2. Illaichi is cardamom, phirana means circulate. This again is a Urdu phrase that can be easily translated into Punjabi without changing the wordings or meanings.
  3. The guru is the head of a zenana household.
  4. Any such festival called urs (yearly celebration of a Sufi saint buried at the shrine) is sacred for most people across the board, therefore any such occasion, does not have to be at a specific shrine or associated with a certain Sufi saint for the reverence of the zenanas.
  5. The gurus who are married to women play a masculine role in public as do the zenanas. It is only in the space of the zenana household that they refer to themselves in the feminine. Language is tricky here, and for this article, the editorial decision is to use the gender term they prefer to use for themselves in public.
  6. There has not been any anthropological work done with zenanas in Pakistan to the best of my knowledge. This is an analysis of case studies that Vision has collected over the years. The child breaking away from his biological family and finding solace at a zenana household is a strong pattern that emerges in almost all the case studies.

Tahir Khilji works with vision, a non proft organization based in Lahore, Pakistan. vision and Tahir, specifcally, works in partnership with religious minorities living in Pakistan and with sexually marginalised and stigmatised communities such as zenanas (men who identify themselves as women). The partnerships emphasise community building in these groups and populations and evolve safe spaces for these communities and groups to exist. vision is one of the few organisations in Pakistan that works at the policy level to protect the rights of these marginalised groups.