RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
To say living as a gay person in Pakistan is difficult is an understatement. Homosexuality is illegal there, so gay and lesbian Pakistanis live secret lives. But as NPR's Diaa Hadid reports, to be a transgender woman in Pakistan is an entirely different experience.
UNIDENTIFIED WORSHIPPERS: (Chanting in foreign language).
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: At the Shiite Muslim shrine in Lahore, men and women are segregated. But there's one group that freely crosses from one side to the other - transgender women. They have long hair and wear makeup, and they lead the chants.
UNIDENTIFIED WORSHIPPER: (Chanting in foreign language).
HADID: The faithful circle the singers, beating their chests to the rhythm. Scenes have played out like this for centuries. Here, transgender women are a fixture of the culture and society. There's thousands of them across Pakistan, but they've lived on the margins. They're known as khawaja sira, and now they're demanding their rights under the law, and they've had some notable success. This movement is led by trans activists like Ashi.
ASHI: (Through interpreter) I always stand up for the rights of my transgender community, even if it's day or night.
HADID: Ashi's own story shows just how far they've come. She was born in the '60s in rural Pakistan. She always felt like a girl in a boy's body.
ASHI: (Through interpreter) I am the creation of God. I'm grateful he created me this way.
HADID: Her parents did not see it that way. Her father caught her dancing in her sister's clothes when she was in the second grade. He threatened to kill her. Her mother begged Ashi to run away. Ashi hitched a bus to town. She had no money, no food - completely desperate. That's when she met transgender women dancing in a circus.
ASHI: (Through interpreter) I thought they were girls. I said to myself, how beautiful these girls are. They told me, you're khawaja sira. And I said, no, no, I'm not. But they recognized me and invited me to be with them.
HADID: This was Ashi's initiation into khawaja sira culture, a community that largely exists because families often cast trans women out onto the streets. An older khawaja sira took her in and became what's known as her goru (ph).
ASHI: (Through interpreter) She treated me like her own child. She protected me. She fed me on time. I missed my parents, so she would hug me and dote on me and say, girl, this is our destiny. We can't live with family. You're young. But as time passes, you will understand everything.
HADID: Ashi learned the rules of the khawaja sira community. And now, she's a guru with dozens of followers. It's morning, and Ashi's visiting deras (ph). That's apartments where khawaja siras (ph) live together. Ashi climbs up a curly staircase to a tiny rooftop flat. These women call Ashi mama. That's because she's the one they call when they're in trouble.
One trans woman, Nargis, recounts how Ashi helped her out. The police detained her after a function. That's a party where they dance for cash and do sex work. Ashi used her contacts to get her out of jail. As they chat, Nargis prepares to go begging. She bleaches her skin pale and smears on white foundation. She says people give more if you look white.
NARGIS: (Speaking Urdu).
HADID: Nargis dodges traffic and hustles motorists for cash. There's a superstition that khawaja siras have the power to bless or curse people. A one-eyed beggar eyes Nargis jealously. Nobody's giving him money. But it's a hard life. Khawaja siras may be visible. They may be accepted as part of the culture, but that doesn't mean they can get jobs or find a husband - hardly. They're often the victims of violent crime, especially rape. And that's what triggered the activism.
Around a decade ago, they began demonstrating outside police stations after cops refused to investigate murders of khawaja siras. They became involved in HIV education and treatment. International groups began funding them. Ashi's now paid to be a community organizer, but it's what she's always done.
They've had a string of victories. They can obtain a third-gender passport, an ID card. They can now be counted in the census. And one of their chief allies is a legislator from a deeply conservative Islamic party. Naeema Kishwar wears a blue hijab and a matching face veil - a niqab. In August, she presented a trans rights bill to Parliament. It would provide education and medical care. It even provides a quota for government jobs.
What drew your interest to the transgender bill? How did this start for you?
NAEEMA KISHWAR: (Through interpreter) They are not been given the rights that they are entitled to, as per the law, our religion and the constitution of our country.
HADID: Kishwar expects it to pass in the next few months, but this bill says nothing about the rights of gays and lesbians. That's strictly against the law here. Leaders like Ashi are OK with that.
ASHI: (Through interpreter) Pakistan is a Muslim country, and nobody will accept them. Gays and lesbians want to use us as an umbrella. I don't think they can join us.
HADID: Not publicly at least. Some do work quietly together. Ashi's a savvy activist. One afternoon, she mobilizes around 20 trans women to protest in a traffic circle downtown. They're here to condemn Myanmar's violent crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. A camera crew surrounds Ashi as she leads a chant of down with the Myanmar government.
ASHI: (Chanting in Urdu).
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Urdu).
HADID: She's not only raised an important issue. She's sent a message - khawaja siras are good Muslims and concerned citizens.
UNIDENTIFIED NEWS CORRESPONDENT: (Speaking Urdu).
HADID: But for all this, Ashi's biggest victory is personal. Decades after Ashi was thrown out of home, her mother and father begged for her forgiveness. She forgave them right away. She cared for her father until he died.
ASHI: (Through interpreter) I wanted him to recognize and accept me. My wish wasn't that he would seek my forgiveness. My biggest wish was that he would consider me as his own, accept me and extend love and affection to me, as he did to his other children.
HADID: She now cares for her elderly mother in a tiny, sunless flat.
ASHI: (Speaking Urdu).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Urdu).
HADID: Ashi boasts that she's the perfect mix - strong like a son and caring like a daughter. While she makes breakfast for her mother, a local boy comes for his morning Quran lesson.
ASHI: (Through interpreter) I teach Quran. I have a job. I consider myself a lucky transgender.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (Speaking Urdu).
HADID: Ashi wants this for her community - an ordinary life with faith and family. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Lahore.
(SOUNDBITE OF USTAD AMJAD, ALI KAHN AND RAHIM ALHAJ'S "JOURNEY")
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