Summary: This speech by a trailblazing figure in the fight against transphobia and heteropatriarchy in Pakistan is introduced by Rehmah Sufi, who provides the political and ideological context of the recent efforts to silence her voice. — Editors
Introduction, by Rehmah Sufi
In the past few years, through these difficult times of crisis, the trailblazing Dr. Mehrub Moiz Awan has been an incandescent inspiration, a beloved ustaani (teacher), and an unstoppable giver of life, as a comedian, critic, activist, ally, scholar, public health practitioner, drag artist, an educator, organizer, and more.
As a proud and publicly known khwajasira,* Mehrub has drawn a great deal of violence and vitriol over the years. A recent incident of censorship by an elite academic institution has encouraged a flood of transphobia and threats against her. It has also exposed the deep-rooted ignorance and bias of so- called educated people and how this ignorance further feeds the hate that the khwajasira community faces every day. However, relentlessly, Mehrub keeps educating us and showing us how to fight.
The article here (https://images.dawn.com/news/1190686/academic-and-activist-dr-mehrub-moiz-awan-decries-transphobia-after-being-removed-from-tedxisl-speaker-roster) describes the events as they unfolded, but I urge you to read the talk that she was disinvited from giving. She has made it public here: https://onedrive.live.com/view.aspx?resid=11D5E54B5990A670!35129&ithint=file%2cdocx&authkey=!AH8R9dqGkBdCTQs and is reprinted below. For those who know her voice, it is immediately apparent how much it was already censored at the request of her hosts. But, of course, they wanted to erase her entirely.
One point she has made over the years, based on her lived experience and research in the local context, is that class dynamics form the basis of rigid heteropatriarchy. She argues that regular folks, regardless of all the labels of fundamentalism and ignorance affixed to them, are much more chill about and accepting of the gender spectrum. It is the educated, urban, bourgeoisie that lead the charge against any deviation from heteronormative sexuality and rigid gender roles. This recent conflict is certainly proving that point.
While she has turned her attention to assisting people affected by the terrible floods across Pakistan, she is still facing an onslaught of new attacks from regressive forces. Apart from the daily spectrum of violence we bestow upon those we push to the margins of society, Dr. Mehrub and other khwajasira active in public life become prominent targets with little to no protections. She points out that an astounding indicator of this violence is the murder rate of khwajasiras in the Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa Province (KPK), which stands at a staggering 789 deaths per 100,000. For context, the national average is about 3.8 per 100,000 and the highest murder rate in the world is that of El Salvador at 52 per 100,000.[i] She is also fighting a legal battle against people from the “beela” gangs who attacked her and her friends while trying to terrorize and rob a community member’s birthday party. Beelas are organized gangs of men who target and prey on khwajasiras, transfeminine folks, and young boys—that is their purpose of existence.
This everyday violence happens right in front of our eyes and yet we leave marginalized people such as the khwajasira community defenseless against the onslaught of normalized oppression. They have, however, created their own unique forms of defense and collective protection. These include a secret language called Farsi Chaand, systems of patronage and mentorship, and mutual aid networks in addition to the outward facing organizing, mobilizing, and awareness raising about their rights and struggles. The recent wins that Dr. Mehrub’s talk mentions have shattered gender, class, political ceilings. They are also challenging the renewed feminist movements within Pakistan to be inclusive and expand their vision of gender equity beyond just “women’s” rights. The alliances and solidarities being formed at this nexus are also bolstering the fight against capitalism and heteropatriarchy as people deepen their analysis while they organize together and recognize the machinations of their mutual oppressions.
Gender and sexuality are complex subjects, which we continue to learn about in various fields of knowledge, including biology, psychology, history, literature, and anthropology. The myths and stigmas surrounding gender diversity and non-heteronormative sexuality are deeply entrenched in our social, economic, religious, political, and cultural lives no matter where we live. The best sources to learn from are people affected by these stigmas and ritualized norms. As Dr. Mehrub’s talk points out, gender and sexual diversity has existed for much longer than the laws and empires that criminalized it. Pakistan’s colonial past is still very much present, not just in the inhumane and oppressive laws that were introduced by the British and are still enforced, but also in the ahistorical and knowledge proof attitude of folks trained in systems of education stripped of their indigeneity.
We must recognize and acknowledge the great diversity and beauty of the human experience in all its abundance. Not only because it is scientifically and historically correct, but also because it is crucial to understanding who we are. And how we are tied together in our search for transformative liberation.
*Khwajasira is not easily translated to English, but it does not mean transgender. Khwajasira is inclusive of a diverse range of genderfluid, non-heteronormative identities.
Censored for Being Trans,” by Dr Mehrub Moiz Awan:
In 2018, Pakistan became the first Muslim nation in the world to unanimously recognize transgender persons and grant them civil liberties and protections. Since then, we have gone on to become the only nation in the world to be represented by a transgender woman at a United Nations forum and have conferred national recognition to transgender activists Aisha Mughal and Dr. Sara Gill on the March 23, 2022. Ms. Bubbli Malik recently became the first transgender woman to speak on the floor of the National Assembly. The Punjab government has a schooling program for transgender persons, the Sindh government has a job quota for us, and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has a fund for monetary assistance for transgender persons. Slowly, we are inching towards acceptance and tolerance, both legally and socially. But very few of us know the history of how we got here, and who taught us hatred in the first place. Today, I want to narrate our history and our story in our words, on our terms. In many ways this is also my story, where I had to dig deep and understand my history, biology, psychology, and spirituality when none around me were willing to accept my existence. And it gives me immense joy to share with you all that I have learnt. This is a story of joy, resistance, struggle, victory, and eventual surrender to the Divine.
Understanding and acknowledging that all our problems started with the arrival of the British, and the new colonial gender regime that they imposed on us, is crucial to making Pakistan a more inclusive country. When the white man from Europe landed on the glorious shores of South Asia with his shallow agenda of loot and theft, he was mesmerized by our diversity, riches, culture, and splendor. He was used to the mundane dark life of the British island, where men and women tiptoed across rigid gender roles and unequal societies. We, contrastingly, were a culture rich with many genders and a variety of gender roles. Warrior queens and princesses, an appreciation of arts by all, male poets, and dancers, Sufi dervishes, and us – the khwajasiras. The first Portuguese travelers to Goa noted the unique presence of khwajasiras – loading and offloading ships, running businesses, dressed in beautiful feminine clothes, and wholly integrated in the South Asian society. All Muslim societies, especially those in South Asia, have had a rich history of gender-variant people. Khwajasiras were protectors of the female quarters, were allowed to pray alongside men in mosques, were guardians of all Sufi shrines in South Asia, and led the funeral prayers of Baba Bulley Shah in Kasur. However, after colonizing us the British deployed a coordinated strategy across many decades with a clearly communicated agenda – to eliminate khwajasiras, and all transgender people, from South Asia. This is the genocide, that the world doesn’t talk about, because it doesn’t know about it.
The British exacted this genocide in many ways. They introduced two sets of laws called the Criminal Tribes Act that stated that khwajasiras will be punished for two years in prison for wearing what they normally wear, feminine clothes. It also prompted the local police to maintain a register of all khwajasiras, and to continue surveilling them. Khwajasiras were forbidden to travel without first informing the police. And the senior British police bureaucracy constantly sent letters to local police to investigate whether the khwajasiras were committing “sodomy”. The British used the term “eunuch” for us, ignoring all the local words that already existed for us. Through this, the British over decades not only put khwajasiras under constant surveillance and criminalized their very existence, but they also created hateful police that were constantly suspicious of us. Even worse, the British associated khwajasiras with sodomy, and that negative perception exists to this very day.
When the British conducted the first census on our lands, they only counted men and women – refusing to count us – and thus my ancestors stopped being citizens of the modern Indian state that the British had created and could thus not participate in any activity of the new State structure. Criminalization, police torture, and surveillance on one end, refusal to provide any State services on another: the sinister project that the British started in 1860 continues even today. In summary, our public learnt hatred and violence from the British, their colonizers, and is still stuck in the same hateful loop.
We must all understand that colonization wasn’t just about capturing economic resources; it was simultaneously a racist project. Armed with the power of racist biology and unethical science, white scientists published multiple books about how the white race is genetically superior to other races and hence more evolved on the tree of evolution. One vital pseudo fact that they used was sex-difference. The racist logic went somewhat like this. Lower species have very minimal differences between the sexes, and as species evolve sex differences become more prominent. As human beings are the most evolved species, therefore sex differences are the highest among us. During colonization, white people came across civilizations where gender roles were markedly different from their regimented European roles, just like ours. Our colonizers stated that because men and women in our societies do things that are not considered masculine or feminine according to European standards, it means that in our races sex differences are not as high as white people, and hence we are an inferior race to the whites.
The Nawab of Lucknow was declared a “eunuch” by the Britishers, and his territories captured after a fierce war simply because he was a patron of Eastern classical music, kathak dance, and fine Urdu poetry. Many women and khwajasiras lined battlefields to fight the all-male British army. Tawayifs helped rebels and fighters by hiding them in their quarters. All of this gave our colonizers immense anxiety, and to ensure their rule upon us they felt they must establish a gender regime where women are locked away in houses making tea (just like their British counterparts) and the brown man is the slave to the white ruler.
Parroting the British Protestant stories of the Prophet Lot, and using English words like sodomite, homosexual, degenerates, cross-dressers, and perverts, an entire generation of scholars was prepared that not just hated us, the khwajasiras, but wanted us eliminated altogether. Yet here we stand today; alive, successful, and proud of our existence. Because according to us, it was Divine will that saved us then, and it is His power that will make us thrive further. We aren’t pretending to be men or women; we are being who we are, what we feel, what we know, and where we want to be. We aren’t a gender; we are a people!
Who am I? Who are you? Who are we? Identities are fascinating delusions of our modern times. They are the core to how we communicate, live, socialize, and die. We are a name, a race, a gender, a nationality, an occupation, a religion, and so on. How many of these did you choose yourself? Or shall I rephrase, how many of these were you given the chance to choose? If we are all agents of free-will and will be tried and tested in front of a human or Divine court of law, we must have the freedom to choose as well. Otherwise, we are being rewarded, or punished, for the choices someone else made for our identity. God makes no mistakes. We aren’t a mistake. In the Garden of God, there are not just two types of flowers; there are many, beyond our counting abilities. Diversity, and heterogeneity, is the order or nature; gender binaries are unnatural, artificial, and engineered.
I was four years old, in kindergarten, and on the first day when my teacher asked all of us to divide into boys and girls, I naturally moved and stood with the girls. She laughed, told me that was wrong, and made me stand with the boys. I was 5 and 6 when complaints and letters were sent to my parents every month stating that your son is too feminine, plays with girls, and talks like them; fix him! I was barely 10, when multiple adolescent males began moving on me sexually and coercively, telling me that girly boys like me deserve this treatment. I was in an all-boys school when I was constantly bombarded with slurs and abuses, many of which I still get on my social media from educated men and women. In my biology classes, while studying endocrinology I always had to leave class and hide in a bathroom because every time Klinefelter Syndrome was mentioned, everyone would point at me and laugh. Klinefelter Syndrome is a biological condition where individuals are born with an extra X chromosome and classified as intersex. And in my medical school, the cursed word of being gay or homosexual dangled over my head for five years straight. I have been beaten, locked away in the dark, punished, called out, degraded, humiliated, raped, and almost killed for having a limp wrist, a slender body, and whatever you consider feminine. But I stand here, proud of my existence, and thankful to the Divine for making me who I am. I shouldn’t have had to endure all of this – the science is clear on the existence of people like me. Countless years of research and wisdom now exists stating that transgender people are valid, their gender identities are valid, and that by making our society more inclusive we improve the living conditions for everyone. Then what is this invisible phenomenon that still makes us hate people that are different from us, or don’t neatly fall on the gender binary?
Gender binaries are made by societies that want to lock people in a strict reproductive order where a calculated number of poor people must be produced every generation to provide services and labor to the minority elite. Failure to do so means that you will be punished in the worst manner possible. You must marry within your class, caste, creed, sect, social status, and if you don’t you will be hunted down and killed, legally prosecuted, or shunned to a life of social exclusion. But we the khwajasiras are beyond this, and hence we present a possibility; a chance of being yourself, true to your soul. We look at life as a journey of Ishq, the search for the self, and through that the search for the Divine. We present the possibility of looking at rigid gender binaries, roles, and customs straight in the eyes and telling them that we are complete individuals made by the Divine and on a journey to live life as our mind, heart, and soul tells us to. And this threatens and frightens the rigid order of gender, known as heteropatriarchy.
If I was not who I am, I wouldn’t know Haq from Baatil, Truth from Falsehood, and Liberty from Oppression. I am free of the confines of social gender binaries, coded and recoded by oppressive rulers, white and brown, and enforced by patriarchal men and women. I am free from this slavery of reproduction, where you all MUST reproduce, and your worth is calculated by how many sons you produce. I am not an insentient uterus, nor am I a toiling breadwinner without any passion or dreams. I am a traveler, a lover, a poet, a warrior, and a broken cup whose cracks are filled with gold and silver. I am all that you were never allowed to be. And that is what makes me special, and hence a target. My being transgender has taught me that too often we categorize behaviors and actions as boyish or girlish when they are neither. Who decided that blue is for boys and pink is for girls? Or that boys must play sports and girls must play with dolls? Why can’t we let kids be kids and allow adults to choose their hobbies and passions, without force fitting everything into a neat category of “for men” and “for women”? Imagine a world where we celebrate people for their talents and passion, and not for how manly or womanly they are. That sounds like liberation to me.
To all young queer and trans people, hold your fort; God has sent you with a plan and purpose and in due time you will find it. To the parents of gender variant people, may God give you the courage to open your eyes to love and shun away the hate that history and patriarchy has taught you. To teachers and school, may God give you the empathy and power to make gender inclusive classrooms where children learn to appreciate each other for their differences instead of bullying. To employers and businesses, may God give you the sense to hire people without the baggage of gender identity and bias. And to all humanity, may you recognize the love and diversity present within you, as gifted by the Almighty already.
To learn more:
Follow Dr. Mehrub Moiz Awan on Twitter: @TMITalks
YouTube: Stoned Alive Podcast: https://youtube.com/channel/UCEg2TRfDkYIUDR8W1YmB0aA
Article on protest against beela violence: https://thecurrent.pk/powerful-pictures-from-transgenders-protest-against-gang-rape-group/
The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018: https://na.gov.pk/uploads/documents/1526547582_234.pdf
Maria Memon’s Podcast: Dr. Awan on How to create an inclusive society where khwajasiras are valued: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYXeozwvdg8 (Urdu)
TCM Originals, Julie Explained the Mindset of Middle Class Families: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_jRkVoXjdw (Urdu with English subtitles)
TCM Originals, Are Villages the Root Cause of Modern Day Problems: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5x0ecH3Sug (Urdu with English subtitles)
The Tea with My Bookshelf: Dr. Mehrub Moiz Awan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfikCbXETnw (English with Urdu sprinkles)
Journey with Jannat, Interview with Dr. Mehrub Moiz Awan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAXMu7MrH0c (Urdu)
The World That Belongs to Us: Contesting Queer & Trans* Politics in Pakistan, Center for South Asia, Stanford: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDZ4x3lzTtQ (English)
Orgs to support:
Gender Interactive Alliance: https://genderinteractivealliance.wordpress.com/
Wajood Society: https://www.facebook.com/wajoodsociety/
HOPE (Have Only Positive Expectations): https://www.hopecommunity.pk/