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Pakistan's Transgenders In A Category Of Their Own
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Pakistan's Transgenders In A Category Of Their Own

Asia

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In Pakistan, there's an age-old tradition many Westerners might find surprising: transvestites at baby showers. Transgender women have long been considered good luck for Pakistani newborns and newlyweds. But they also face discrimination.

NPR's Lauren Frayer talked with members of the Pakistan's transgender community and shares her reporter's notebook.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC AND THE CALL TO PRAYER)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Urban Pakistan assaults your senses: tangles of traffic, Pakistani pop competing with the mosque's call to prayer, pungent spices in the steamy air. And then there are the transvestites.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION)

FRAYER: At traffic lights, you see people draped in elegant pink and red clothing, with sparkling makeup. They tap their painted fingernails on your car window, asking for money. And that's when you notice the stubble on their chins.

MINA MEHVISH: (Through translator) Begging here in traffic is just a part-time job, but I really want to be a dancer.

FRAYER: Thirty-three-year-old Mina Mehvish is a hijra, the South Asian term for transgender women, who trace their presence here back to at least the 16th century, when eunuchs served as entertainers and guards in Mogul courts. This year, hijras won a legal battle to have a third gender option on national ID cards. About 50,000 Pakistanis are classified as hijras like Mehvish.

MEHVISH: (Through translator) I'm neither a man nor a woman. We cannot marry, we cannot produce children. So this is how we lead our lives. We're neither.

FRAYER: Mehvish was born male, but now identifies as a female - and not as gay, which she considers a sin in Islam.

MEHVISH: (Through translator) I just have a boyfriend, I don't have a girlfriend. So, I'm not homosexual.

FRAYER: Gender studies professor Fatimah Ihsan says Pakistanis have more fluid gender identities than you might expect. Part of that, she says, is the segregation of men and women, which creates very close same-sex friendships. Men hold hands in the street.

FATIMAH IHSAN: A lot of sort of homoeroticism you'll see, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they have a same-sex relationship. It's just part of our culture. In the West, I think everything has been boxed so strictly.

FRAYER: There is serious discrimination against hijras - stories of rape by police who are supposed to protect them. But slowly their status is rising.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRAYER: Last year, the highest-grossing Pakistani film was "Bol," which means speak out in Urdu. The villain is a father who murders his son for wanting to wear women's clothes. Almas Bobby, the leader of Pakistan's transgender community, made a cameo in the film.

ALMAS BOBBY: When I see lot of discrimination, then I decided to do something for my community, because there was no platform. They feel it's an embarrassing, sensitive topic.

FRAYER: Bobby took the ID card battle to Pakistan's Supreme Court and won. She also organized a recent protest - transgender women against the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas. The political visibility has helped, she says.

BOBBY: Now, people realize that we are God's creation, and we have our rights. And God sent us but not in tribal areas.

FRAYER: There are some conservative neighborhoods where hijras are not welcome. Down a dark alley across from a mosque, a bunch of transgender wedding singers rehearse in secret.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRAYER: While having her makeup done, a 22-year-old performer who goes by the single name Sameeha, says she once dreamed of being a doctor. But she came out as a hijra as a teen, and faced so much discrimination that she quit school.

SAMEEHA: (Foreign language spoken)

FRAYER: There are allegations that we're involved in sex and drugs, but we're God-fearing people, she says. Why don't people worry about the real problems in society, instead of us?

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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