It’s taken almost a week to write this post because of the importance of representing Bindiya and her organization accurately. Ideally this would be in her words, but my Urdu is not up to that. Once she starts speaking – she is eloquent and passionate, a true orator – we don’t want to interrupt her, so Usman has to paraphrase 3-5 minutes of speech at a time which he does with remarkable recall of specific quotes and details. We recorded the interview, and my transcription of Usman’s translation/explanation in english form the basis for this post. It will have to do until I get a translation of Bindiya’s words from Urdu and Sindhi.
Bindiya leads us into her room and introduces us to Munnee and Sabna who have a bedroom upstairs. We sit on the sofa and Usman, Munnee, Sabna and Abbas sit on the bed with her (luckily it’s a double bed). B offers us juice, water, chai, checks the fan is not too much or too little for us.
This room is the Gender Interactive Alliance‘s base for the hospital – they are always on call, and if a member is injured or in an accident, they’ll go there and take care of them.
B tells us she’s extremely angry with people and organisations who come promising to tell their story, but don’t represent what is shown to them – they go away with their own script and angle. She’s also angry with organisations that come from America and England and throw money around, making them act in a certain way, to illustrate a particular aspect that interests them. She says it undermines her position as the president of an association because when she actually wants to protest over something or she wants to get transgenders to come together, they would ask ‘how much are you going to pay us?’ so it’s a bad habit that’s developed because of these documentary makers.
She wants to know why we are conducting this interview. I explain about my play and that one of my reasons for this trip is to gain insight into the experience of being transgender in Pakistan today, in order to more authentically represent my transgender character of 2000 years ago. I also tell her that I also want to help her in any way I can, to promote her organization and raise awareness of the transgender experience in Pakistan. I am also hoping that my play, whose main character happens to be transgender, might in some small way help to promote understanding and acceptance of khawaja-serás in Pakistan and abroad. Aisha also explains her role: a audio-visual documenting of our trip and an artistic response in photographing transgender women and their lives.
Throughout our meeting, B’s phone goes off regularly, and she checks it and passes it to Abbas or answers it herself if it’s urgent. We are at the heart of the association, and she is sought after for advice and action. She wants to know what questions I have for her.
Do you identify as a woman or a khawaja-será? I ask.
Look, inside, we are women… But before I express that, of course I feel like a woman inside but there are limits. There are limits that I live in because I come from Pakistan. She says that as a Muslim and because she lives in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, there are a lot of things that she can’t express and can’t do. If she was living in America or England, where it’s OK for 2 men to be married, it would be different. But for her, even when she was with her guru (mentor/teacher), the only place where they were allowed to be themselves and to express themselves was when they would go to give blessings in a house where there was a newborn or where there was a marriage – that’s the only time. Otherwise, if she tried to express herself as a woman, her family won’t be supportive of it, and even the people around her wouldn’t be supportive of that.
I tell her that my play is set at a time when courtesans lived in grand residences and my character, a transgender courtesan, had a love relationship with a nobleman. ‘If you could do as you liked, with no limits, what would you wish for yourself, for love?’
I can’t relate to this situation 2,000 years ago, I can only say my life. First and foremost the biggest problem is growing up you don’t get the support you want, you don’t get the support from your siblings you want. I wanted my brothers to treat me like a sister, but the way they treated me was like I was a hooligan… And then when it comes to love, or when it comes to someone having the choice of girls and expressing his love to her, I haven’t experienced that. There are people who are out here, even at their age, who would love to showcase their love to me, but can only do it within 4 walls. But if I want someone to hold my hand when I go for a conference, that’s not possible.
She says that for a young transgender of 14 or 15, they won’t really have much say in the matter of love, or expressing that love… You won’t be able to think ‘I am in love’, it’s more that when someone else says they love you, it’s just so powerful and empowering that you will go with it.
We are offered soft drinks and delicious Peak Frean biscuits with cumin seeds. I ask about importance of pronouns – in the West most transgenders would be addressed as ‘she’ but others prefer a neutral pronoun, ‘hen’.
B is much more comfortable with being called third gender – she doesn’t want to be termed a woman.
I mention Miley Cyrus and how some people identify gender fluid – neither male or female, and how others consider themselves to be agender, choosing the pronouns they/them. B hasn’t heard of MC but Usman has. [I discover later that YouTube was banned in Pakistan in 2012, and though the ban was reversed in January of this year, the Pakistan Television Authority enforces a block on ‘specific offending material’ – which would undoubtedly include twerking and MC].
B tells us about a girl who is a beautician – she’s a girl but she likes to hang out with them and go to their meetings, and she likes to be termed as a khawaja-será – she doesn’t want to be called a girl. I’m like her grandmother, Bindiya says.
In our way of life we can’t have any family ties in this country – we can’t get married, we can’t have kids – so when someone comes as an apprentice in our society, we call them our children, and their apprentice would be our grand-children, and their apprentice would be my great-grand-children, and that’s the only way we can make family bonds.
Although the government recognizes transgender, although on paper they have given them more rights than the gay community or the lesbian community, what ends up happening, she says, is that you can’t really have a friend, being a transgender woman here. I want someone I can talk to, who I can share my problems with, my companion. She is a known name in the transgender community, so if she’s walking around with someone and says ‘this guy is my friend’, then people will accept it, because they know she’s part of an association. But if any other regular khawaja-será is walking around, even with her brother or father or uncle, the cops will stop them and ask ‘what are you doing? Are you soliciting?’ They can’t accept the fact that a khawaja-será has a friend, or has a platonic relationship with another man, just as a friend to talk to and share ideas.
I can do it because I have built a name for myself, but if it wasn’t for that, then there are no human rights and instances like this make you feel that you’re not even a human. You can’t even have a friend with you without being questioned.
She looks tired. So many people have come and promised things, and they’ve gone away and never been in touch, she says. They’ve told things with their agenda.
I tell her I’m different – I will be in touch, I will make great efforts for her group, try to link them with groups in the UK and promote them, raise awareness and tell their story so people can understand and accept them. I have no agenda except to understand and tell their story their way.
She begins to tell me about her association. The main work they plan to do right now, the funds they need, is to spread awareness in different provinces in the interior. The transgender community over there have no idea about the Supreme Court ruling.
They have no idea of what rights they have at present. They have no connections with healthcare facilities, they have no connections with human rights organisations, so what she wants to do is go around and spread awareness. For example, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly NWFT), khawaja-serás cannot even dress up and go out – they will be shot down, right there and right then. We would have to meet up with people over there, she says. Only they can convince – this is how it works in villages as well – the person who is of influence, if he says they can walk around like this, or that there’s nothing wrong with it, then they will be accepted.
Right now the movement is still in a nascent age, so they want to spread awareness more than anything else. And she wants to offer the sort of training that if someone takes a 3-hour workshop, they should know that they can get a job, so they don’t go out and start indulging in activities they were trying to get out of to begin with.
It looks bad on us when we go out looking for funds, when we go out looking for donations, she says. When a poor person does it, they call it begging. But when the leaders of the country are going out and asking for the exact same donations to get their policies implemented, then it’s perfectly fine.
Her organisation is limited when it comes to helping transgenders in this community when it comes to healthcare, because when they go to government hospitals, what happens is that they get their appointment at one place, and they have to travel somewhere else to get free medication. Transgenders can rarely travel by bus –because in some buses they would be asked to go and stand with the boys, and in some buses they would be asked to go in the ladies section. There is a lot of harassment on both ends
Also, if someone is sick and they show up and say ‘this is the medication I need and I have no money on me’ it’s difficult. They have to link themselves to different organisations. There are fair people everywhere, she says, so there will be someone who will help us out, but at the end of the day, that’s not a sustainable model, to have to depend on someone else’s kindness. Their association needs to be more empowered, so that they don’t have to go to different organisations.
Without the funds, without any financial support, it’s a toothless organization – they can’t really do much. Because she is the voice of GIA, she can walk around with people, she’s not afraid of anything. But the transgender standing on the road who gets raped, or who gets arrested, or has to lodge an FIR (complaint), gets hassled by the cops, by the person who’s the aggressor, and there’s no way to resolve it. So after a while they stop talking about it, because nothing will be done.
It’s strange, she says, because people will do a protest for anyone else, any other organization, they’ll go and protest, but when it happens to us, people feel embarrassed to come and protest with us, for our cause.
We talk more about her work with GIA and it’s clear that she this is her life’s work. A charismatic orator, in 2013 she was one of Pakistan’s first transgender candidates to stand for election. She continued despite death threats and the difficulties of campaigning with negligible funds. She hadn’t expected to win the election, and considered standing for election a win in itself.
Our meeting comes to and end – Bindiya has already delayed another meeting she was meant to be at. We say goodbye – she gives me her card, and we become facebook friends. I feel I am saying goodbye to a real friend, but I know this is the beginning of something rather than the end.