Aziz and her dignity (a Boing Boing guest-dispatch from Pakistan)

Since it's pride week, I thought I'd share a small story about the disenfranchised transgendered community here in Karachi.

portraithi.jpg Ashi stands by the door of the shared house where she lives with Aziz and Nighat. (Photo: Bassam Tariq.)

Last week, my uncle took me to meet one of his old neighborhood's infamous icons, Aziz Mamoo. She lives in a small one bedroom shack located in the heart of a very disturbed ghetto. Aziz Mamoo is transgendered or, as they're known in South Asia, a hijrah. At the age of 11, she was kicked out of her house by her brothers and found refuge with the local hijrah guru, Hajji Iqbal. Iqbal took her in and taught the young Aziz how to sing and dance. Every town in Karachi has a designated guru who is in charge of the hijrahs in their area. The guru becomes both the mother and father to their communities hijrahs. The local guru feeds them, provides them shelter, and teaches them how to pray and live a modest life. When there is a birth of a child that is considered intersex, some families leave the infant at the guru's doorstep. After the death of Hajji Iqbal, Aziz Mamoo became the local guru of her neighborhood. Countless babies have been left at her doorstep and though she has very little to offer, she never turns them away. The two kids that live with her now are Ashi and Nighat. Many more lived with her before, but she kicked them out after they started doing, as she calls it, "number two work." 'Number two work' is a euphemism for prostitution and it's become a common job for many hijrahs in Karachi.

According to Aziz Mamoo, there are two kinds of hijrahs: those that dance and pray at weddings and aqiqahs (a celebration commemorating the birth of a child), and those that prostitute or beg for money on the main roads. Aziz Mamoo despises the latter.

"Woh bhanchots!" Those sister-fuckers, she curses, "they give us a bad name. We don't beg on the streets. We may not have much, but we do have our dignity."

hi3.jpg Aziz Mamoo, center, sits on her charpoi with her two daughters, Ashi, left, and Nighat. (Photo: Bassam Tariq.)

My uncle grew up in Karachi and has had a lot of friends that frequent the prostitute hijrahs. He mentions that many men dress up as hijrahs just to be accepted as homosexuals. As he puts it, his friends rave about the fellatio these hijrahs give. There is a grey area when it comes to the street hijrahs, they are either transvestites or transgendered, but there really is no way of knowing from the surface. My uncle was keen on asking Aziz about her own sexual desires.

She was quick to reply, "We cannot bare a child nor do we have the ability to impregnate. We just desire two things: good clothing and decent food. With what we do, we make enough to live."

Aziz Mamoo started to feel a little uneasy and kept looking over at her clock. I wondered if we were overstaying our welcome, nevertheless, I was compelled to ask another question.

"If I have a child that's transgendered, would you recommend me bringing them to you? Or do you feel I should keep the child and raise them?"

It's important to note that in the middle of asking this question, Aziz interrupted me and muttered,

"God forbid that you have a transgendered child." After she let me finish my question she continued, "Keep them. take care of them, educate them. Don't let them stray into our line. We are uneducated. We scour our neighborhoods day and night looking for someone that will hear us sing and dance. This is no way for anyone to live."

Minutes later, my uncle signaled to me that it was time for us to leave. After we said our good byes, I asked Aziz Mamoo what she was doing for the rest of the day.

"It is Sunday," she said, "today is for us."

(Edit: Changed transgendered to intersex in first paragraph. Thanks, AnneH)

hiembrace.jpgAshi and Nighat laugh at an inside joke. (Photo: Bassam Tariq.)


  1. Thank you, Bassam, for this.

    When there is a birth of a child that is transgendered, some families leave the infant at the guru’s doorstep

    Do you mean, when there is the birth of a child who is intersexed? Gender identity forms later in life and I believe it’s impossible for an infant to have a self-perceived gender.

    This confused me, because not all intersexed people are transgender, and not all transgenders are intersexed.

    1. That confused me as well. How do they determine if an infant is transgendered? Is it genitalia that are not normal?

      I understand ‘transgender’ as feeling very strongly that someone was born into the wrong gender body. How do they know infants feel that way?

      1. Hi Anne. Thanks for reading the article. In response to your first comment, a hijrah can be either intersex or transgender. There are different classifications within hijrahs. I broke down the differences in a reply to Rob Myers. Since Aziz Mamoo is considered a Kusra, she also then falls more into the category of transgender than intersex.

        To answer your second question, from what I am told some infants can be identified as a khadra (both with male and female genitalia). Those are the ones, I’m guessing, are left at the doorstep.

        1. Thanks for the reply, Bassam.

          Reading about this topic, here and elsewhere, I am upset that we humans are not civilized enough to simply accept people as they are.

          PZ Myers wrote a sarcastic response to the idea of giving a dangerous steroidal medication to pregnant women so their daughters would not be too masculine.

          I really can’t tell which approach is more barbaric. Both view being outside the binary gender norms as a disease or defect. At least Pakistan allows them a marginal place in society.

    2. Many parts of the world do not make a distinction between trans and intersex. That’s mostly an invention of a defunct US-based separatist group called ISNA. They have gone out of business and have been supplanted by OII, a group with a more nuanced view of the interplay of sex anatomy and gender identity.

      Hijra culture is really not that much different than the drag mother/house system we have in the US among poor urban trans people. Trans people are frequently relegated to entertainment and sex work, though in some cultures we are seen as kind of supernatural.

      Hijra activists in Pakistan successfully lobbied to be recognized by the government as a third gender this year. Islam is sometimes OK with trans people because the Qur’an (42:49-50) says Allah sometimes mingles male and female (makes them from both). There is still wide discrimination, so many hijras make a living performing at weddings (considered good luck) and through begging and survival sex.

      1. Thanks for the clarification, Andrea. When you said “That’s mostly an invention of a defunct US-based separatist group called ISNA,” did you mean “the difference between trans and intersex is mostly and invention of ISNA”?

        If so, that surprises me, because I know many trans people who are not intersex and a couple intersex folks who aren’t trans, which indicates to me that there is, and should be a distinction between the two terms.

        1. Some trans people believe that “intersex” sounds more socially acceptable, so they claim or self-diagnose as intersex without independent confirmation. This is problematic for a lot of reasons, especially to people with diagnosed intersex characteristics, who sometimes see this as appropriation of their identities.

          ISNA was dedicated to asserting that there was a clear distinction between trans and intersex people. ISNA was also fixated on its founder’s assertion that issues of cosmesis and phenotype were just the same as issues of function and genotype, mainly because the founder says she endured unconsented neonate surgery for an “oversized” clitoris (see Maggie’s post today). The separatist notion didn’t hold, though, as many trans people have intersex traits and vice versa.

          There is increasing evidence that gender identity and expression has a genetic component (replications at certain gene loci), so much depends on how you define “intersex.” Other cultures and traditions aren’t so hung up on medicalizing and pathologizing difference, so people who don’t fit into a neat sexual or social binary are all considered part of the same group, as we see in southeast Asia.

          1. But there IS a difference between a baby born with ambiguous genitalia and a person whose gender identity doesn’t match hir physical sex. The fact that these categories can overlap doesn’t mean they should be treated as the same.

            For one thing, the child born with the ambiguous genitalia is more likely to be left on the doorstep of the hijrah house.

        2. @9
          The line between the 2 is somewhat ill defined as it seems that more and more, transsexualism does have biological underpinnings (instead of being
          purely psychological, as was thought by some in the past)

          Our knowledge of the brain is still pretty minimal and as a result, it’s easier to isolate conditions such as chromosomal abnormalities and designate them as “intersex” and declare “brain stuff” to be transsexualism.

          There has been a bit of drama between the two groups, stupid, really.

          @8 that’s right.
          Trans and IS people are more or less accepted by Islam, although it really depends on the local authority figure. Iran actually pays for bottom surgery and has a surgical program, but other parts of Islam are far from tolerant.
          As an example, in Indeonesia and other parts of SE Asia, clerics are actively attempting to erase any trace of the waria (their name for gender variant people) culture (or whatever traditional name they had in local culture)

          Interesting that the masculine title is used, the feminine is Hajja.

      2. Would you please do me the favor of linking to whatever more nuanced distinction you are referring to? My google-fu is weak, apparently.

        I haven’t really heard of this, and shared RevelryByNight’s surprise, because… I also know many trans people who are not intersex, and a few intersex people who prefer a distinction between the two terms.

        I’m happy to be educated.

    3. You are correct. I made a mistake and need to change it from transgender to intersex. Thanks for pointing that out.

  2. If I understand correctly, both intersex and transgender people can be hijrah. It’s a category unto itself not exactly parallel to anything in the US.

    So if they’re talking about a hijrah infant too young to be identified as transgender, they’re probably physically intersex.

  3. Thank you Bassam. I had no idea this existed at all, much less that there were traditions about hijrahs performing at weddings.

    I do think there’s some confusion between intersexed and transgendered in this article. I understand that both can be hijrah though.

  4. Hmm, looks like it’s easy to confuse this term with the Prophet’s (pbuh) flight from Mecca to Medina; in fact they’re related, sharing an Arabic root ‘hjr’ (“leave one’s tribe”).

    Sounds like they have a position similar to berdaches in some Native American societies.

    1. The “R” sound is different in this case… the “R” is not pronounced as an “R”, making it a totally different word.

      One term is Arabic (the one about Mohamed migrating to Medina) while this one is an Urdu word, totally unrelated.

      Arabic has less sounds than Urdu.

      1. No, it IS an Arabic word, and as described above by another commenter, it has the Arabic root of ‘hjr’. Most words with this root will indicate some sort of travel or leave-taking. The sounds are NOT completely different.

        1. The “R” sound IS different since it’s not pronounced as an English “R”. I’m afraid I ought to know, since I’m an Urdu speaker.

          1. Congratulations on knowing Urdu. As someone who speaks Arabic and Urdu, I can promise you that a difference in pronunciation does not indicate that the word isn’t borrowed from another language. There are plenty of words in English that are borrowed from French that are pronounced differently betweent he two languages – it doesn’t mean that the borrowing didn’t occur.

  5. please refrain from the use of berdaches as it is a very unpolite term from the perspective of those of us who are Native American. We currently use the word “Two Spirits”. Berdaches came from the Europeans that despised us.

    1. Sorry. I didn’t know. I guess Wikipedia says the term is considered “inappropriate,” so I ought to have known.

      My apologies.

  6. the local hijrah guru, Hajji Iqbal.

    I believe Hajji is a title, meaning “one who has made a proper pilgrimage to Mecca”?

  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    I’m one of the commenters who is curios about the precise taxonomy of the term “hijrahs”. I know this is fail on my part. People can call themselves wtf they want and that’s their identity. I’m still curious though…

    The place for outsiders in ritual is something I think most societies have. Look at popular entertainment in open societies…

    1. Hijrah can (and does) encompass male-bodied people who are impotent, transwomen, and some intersex people. It’s not equivalent to any of those terms in English. Those with male genitals castrate themselves to become more female. It’s sort of a catch-all term for those who don’t fit existing gender identities, but has religious and social connotations that don’t exist outside of hijrahs.

    2. Thanks for the comment Rob.

      To be quiet honest, the term hijrah itself isn’t the most apt description of even how Aziz Mamoo identifies herself. As she explains it, there are three types of hijrahs: khawaja sara, kadhra, and kusra. My urdu isn’t that great, so my notes on the differences are sparse.Here is what I have though:

      (this is just how aziz mamoo explained the differences, there’s nothing medical about it)

      Khawaja Sara – One who has a small penis that can only be used for urinating. Khawaja Sara’s tend to be more masculine. In fact, I know of one who works as a man in the day at a mobile store and then works the streets of Zamzama (an affluent commercial district in Karachi) as a woman.

      Kusra – One who has a vagina and is more woman-like. As Aziz Mamoo explains it, “there is a bone in the vagina that blocks anything from entering.” Aziz Mamoo also identifies herself as a kusra.

      Kadhra – One who has both male and female genitalia. This is what most people in Pakistan think of when they think of a hijrah.

      Aziz is considered a Kusra.

  8. There is a wonderful photo essay at the CaxiaForum in Madrid by Marta Ramoneda on Khusras, which I’m led to believe is also a term for the transgendered community in Pakistan (someone please clarify if I’m wrong). It was part of a larger photojournalism competition, and though it didn’t win, it is very powerful and interesting. Ramoneda’s website shows some of the awesome pictures. This was a wonderful article, but it tied in very closely with that exhibition I saw at Caixa Forum.

  9. While I am glad that there seems to at least be an acknowledged cultural niche for trans-sex/trans-gender people in this culture (something we don’t really have for kids who are born that way in the US) it makes me sad that there are so few economic options for this community. Is there any movement to help these people find other ways to support themselves via micro credit or something like that?

    1. I don’t know much about the programs that are around to help them. Will look into it.

      At one time, Hijrahs were better integrated in Pakistani society. They also held public performances regularly on Thursdays at certain saints’ shrines. But because of the violence and extremism that’s enveloping the country, a lot of them are laying low these days.

  10. Thanks so much for posting this, Bassam! There’s so little chance to hear actual Pakistani hijra voices in the US (where I am).

    On the Indian hijra tip (and re: the empowerment of hijras @zootboing), I recommend having a look at hijra parliamentarian Shabnam Mausi’s wiki

    (and the astounding Bollywood movie made of her life that basically gives her superpowers. It’s a wow.)

  11. Andrea, and others, thank you for your very thoughtful and informed comments here.

    Bassam, man, thanks again for sending this dispatch to us from the P-K. Be safe over there and good luck on the documentary project. I hope you’ll send us more posts, I know so little about the country and it’s fascinating to see it through the eyes of someone who is of the culture, and not an outsider as most of us here would be.

  12. I’m ambivalent on hijras. I’m totally sympathetic to their plight and I wish that they didn’t have to resort to organized crime (yes, that’s what it is) to make a living.

    But based on my personal encounters with them, I found them scary and purposefully intimidating, even violent. Extortionists. The supposedly good kind, not the “behen-chods.”

    I guess in the end they’re making society pay (literally) for its own intolerance, and the “punishment” is pretty evenly distributed. But I can’t really agree to a portrayal of them as completely innocent.

  13. Living in Karachi, I totally agree with Invisibelle’s sentiments.

    There people behave like gangs and have “beats” carving out commercial areas to operate in.

    To most of us, they are pests.

  14. Very true to life reporting.
    Being a citizen of Pakistan (living in Rawalpindi city), I see some of these transgenders on the roads on weekly basis.

    Although, like mentioned in the article, there is some percentage of these, who are actually just men dressed a transgendered just to beg on the roads. Have heard of a male impersonating as a transgender in the neighbourhood, so this is like 1st hand informaiton :p

    These guys (or girls) face a pretty tough time in this culture though.

  15. I know I’m late to the party, but… it should be “bear a child” rather than “bare a child”. (Unless they do mean remove it’s clothes, of course.)

  16. The thing people don’t consider about Bangladesh or any other place for that matter, is the tight restrictions on gender roles. People who want to perform or express genderized attributes which don’t match their perceived biological sex receive even more flack than people whose behavior matches their perceived biological sex.

    As a female, I can look at my own life and see the truth in that. I receive negative attention and consequences every time I want to express “too many” masculine qualities but I get positive attention every time I act more feminine. And the desire to battle gender stereotypes for the rest of my life was drained out of me before I was five or six years old. I could tell the pressure would never let up, so I just gave up and became more girly than I would have been otherwise.

    It’s like people have this need to fit everybody else into a box and it makes them very uncomfortable when they don’t know what box to put you in or you won’t stay in that box. Those genderized expectations are changing, but very slowly. And you know, if boys were allowed to be as feminine as they wanted without any criticism or pressure, then they would have no need to transition.

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