Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pakistan's Undesirables: 'Dealing with' the Hijra Problem

Pakistan's Undesirables: 'Dealing with' the
Hijra Problem
Author: Freethinker

Through the last month, Pakistani media celebrated the recognition of the citizenship rights of the hijracommunity by a Supreme Court ruling which declared them entitled to 'protection guaranteed under Article four (rights of individuals to be dealt with in accordance of law) and Article nine (security of person) of the Constitution'. The ruling has been hailed as an important step toward the integration of 'the Third sex' into the Pakistani society, who are now going to be registered and surveyed (with 'Third Sex' designating their gender on the ID cards and forms) so as to enable them to access the services of state social welfare departments and financial support programs.

What does it mean - recognition of citizenship rights? It means enfranchisement, access to avenues of power and justice, along with better opportunities for education and health-care. But those lofty goals of modernity that always excluded the hijra are still going to remain out of their reach - the future of economic empowerment for anyone on the margins of Pakistani economy is bleak, the road to justice is not particularly favorable to the poor and the illiterate, and the hijra as yet do not enjoy any special 'minority' rights that are needed for political mobilization and combating discrimination in a liberal democracy. Yes, modernity in Pakistan does not seem likely to empower our social outcasts.

There has been little serious discussion of this SC ruling online or in the print media: no speculation whatsoever over the meaning of gender in Pakistan, or whether this ruling is right in creating a hijra subject for the purposes of bureaucracy. What is going to constitute 'the Third sex'? And what happens to those who do not qualify for this category? According to the article quoted above, the hijra are 'left by the society to live by begging, dancing and prostitution', to be exploited by the 'self-styled guru' - does it mean that after this 'social uplift' program, they will be made to give up their lifetyle? What if they can't? Does discrimination go away after formal barriers to progress have been removed, or does it merely become invisible and more difficult to fight? With the avenus of empowerment formally open to them, wouldn't the society find it easier to blame them if their 'begging and dancing and prostitution' continues? Will they be persecuted or will we realize that a 'respectable' life is just not possible for the hijra without a radical change in the society, its institutions and maybe our ideas of 'respectable'?

These questions do not surface because of the complete exclusion of the transgender standpoint in our media. This not only means that the interests of the transgendered go largely unarticulated in our media, but also that the experiences of hijra remain shrouded in mystery. With a bourgeois mentality that is reluctant to recognize gender deviance ('inverted' gender identification, same-sex desire, transvestism, and other inappropriate behavior, all of which, it can be argued, find a measure of acceptance among the more traditionally minded who allow their sons and daughters to join the hijra), the hijra are comfortably assigned a 'Third sex', . Online, a few articles can illustrate this: it is thought that the hijra are 'almost invariably hermaphrodites', when in fact they are not, consisting in a large number of 'biological' males who would be described in the West as 'transgendered' and 'transsexual'. Because of that, you find people talking about 'the true hijra' and 'the cross-dresser' who only tries to pass off as a hijra. The castration ritual evokes feelings of fascination and horror; it is something that goes against the 'rational' sensibilities of most Pakistani moderns. Of course most of us are conditioned to react with feelings of revulsion and pity for their lifestyle, associated with shameless beggary, singing bawdy songs, dancing in the streets, prostitution and even theft and kidnapping. But these feelings also show under the ruse of rationality in articles like this and this. Such write-ups also show the hijra as the enigmatic, untamed Other of the Pakistani society. This is why it is easy to link the hijra with the rise of prostitution, the spread of HIV and other 'evils', especially for those who do not want to criticize the system of relationships that produce these problems. It seems as if we do not want any understanding of the hijra; we have always wanted to find a way to 'deal' with them.

An understanding of the hijra begins with an understanding of the society. Ours is a society where, in traditional spaces, you find life strictly segregated on the basis of gender, and where it's not segregated, there is blatant male privilege. The (patriarchal) family reigns supreme as an institution that organizes much of life, based on appropriate gender role socialization, a preference for sons over daughters, early marriages marked by ceremonies that are a public spectacle, and an exclusive system for the care of the young and the old. Transgendered children have an awkward presence in this life - they cannot take the responsibilities of a son, nor can they be married off. And who will take care of them when they grow old? All this makes the marginalization of all 'gender-confused' a necessary condition of our social organization. And the 'unfortunate condition' of the hijra as a community becomes more understandable when you think about the effects of urbanization and modern life itself, which has taken away their traditional place in the society and exposed them to sexual exploitation.

And so, I do not find this Supreme Court ruling very heartening. There's nothing radical about it: by proposing that 'the hijra problem' can be solved by 'registering and surveying' them, it locates the problem in a few particular conditions of the hijra life, and not in the society. And of course no real change will be achieved: the program will suffer from the usual pitfalls of an inefficient bureaucracy. Moreover, the cause of the hijra is in danger of getting co-opted, who do not need to worry now that the State is doing all it can to save them. Gender injustice is a site of revolutionary potential, and that can be lost with the State apparatus formally committed to the 'social uplift' of the hijra. But, like I said before, there will be no real 'social uplift' because the focus is on saving them from this unfortunate situation, rather than working to change the deeply embedded norms of our society.

But perhaps the greatest danger, to which I've only alluded so far, is further entrenchment of the gendered order. The hijra have traditionally aroused feelings of awe in the rest of the society, because they defied gender as taken for granted by everyone else. Increasingly, people's attitudes toward them is changing, as people rid themselves of 'silly superstition' and see the hijra as part of the lumpen masses. And I can see this official recognition as 'the Third sex' taking the demystification of the hijra further along. When they are seen as another sex category, the gendered body politic of the society comes to regulate and control them as well, their bodies becoming 'sexed' and providing the basis of a sex role, a body ideal, and a clothing distinction that applies to their sex. Much more likely is a medicalized view that 'pathologizes' their condition as defective maleness or femaleness ('intersex' as the medical classification goes), like it did in late 19th century Europe and became a part of the notorious eugenics movement. The concept of 'intersex' is heavily criticized by transgender activists in the US. In Iran, an adherence to this concept has led to a State-funded program of SRS operations which has both religious and scientific backing. The rationale behind these potentially life-threatening operations is the 'integration' of their 'hijra' into the society, but that does not necessarily mean a better life for the gender-ambiguous of Iran.

At this point, we cannot project anything about the future of the hijra of Pakistan. But what is clear is that there are good reasons to be skeptical about this Supreme Court ruling. Perhaps then, the wise thing to do is to see this decision as inevitable in the given political context (as Basim Usmani reflects toward the end of his article), and not to endorse it as a positive step toward the liberation of the gender-ambiguous from an oppressive social structure.