The Third Gender in Pakistan:
Dancers, Singers and Performers
This had been my first encounter with ambiguously gendered individuals widely known in Pakistan as khusre (singular: khusra), which is the term in Punjabi language, or as hijre (singular: hijra), the word commonly used in Urdu and Hindi across South Asia. In addition, they are also known as khwaja sara, as they had been part of the Mughal court. The community of the khusre comprises individuals who are often in a simplified way labelled as transvestites, ritually castrated ‘eunuchs’, transsexuals (that is to say men undergoing a serious crisis in their gender identity) and hermaphrodites, i.e. all those who do not fit into the binary gender framework of Anglo-European society and their colonial ethnographers. In her pioneering work Neither Man nor Woman, Serena Nanda emphasises that the hijra phenomenon is a ‘magnet that attracts people with many different kinds of cross-gender identities, attributes, and behaviours’. Apart from a comparatively small number of hermaphrodites, who are born with both male and female characteristics and reproductive organs, the common khusra is born as a male and stands out by female dress and effeminate behaviour. Although often described as someone ‘with the mind of a woman trapped in the body of a man’, it seems more appropriate to say that her gender identity is neither male nor female. Anthropologists theorise such contexts using the notion of multiple genders or the category of ‘third gender’.
The latter concept is not as recent as some scholars are inclined to think, but in fact can be traced back to the late Vedic period (eighth to sixth centuries before the Common Era) in India. Thus already ancient Sanskrit texts refer to the trtiya prakrti – the ‘third gender’ or ‘third nature’ – to denominate the klibas who were not accepting the male role and instead wearing female dress and adornment, dancing and behaving like women. For ancient Indian society it was of crucial importance that those individuals showed no sexual interest in women and did not procreate. Their descendents, so to speak, are the contemporary khusre and hijre who are similarly transgressing the gender boundaries defined by their society. Both have been categorised as ‘male transgenders’ as well as ‘male femalers’ because of their cross-dressing, although I prefer to stick to the local terms in order not to reduce the ritual complexity and mythic connotations of khusre and hijre. They exist as a ‘third gender’ (in Urdu tisri jins), accepted as such in 2009 by a Pakistani Supreme Court decision, not independently of, but in relation to and within the female-male binary. Their number is nowadays estimated at about four million for India and at around 300,000 for Pakistan.
Ritual performers: meeting Gogi and her disciples
A couple of months after my encounter with the hijre in Karachi I visited Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (now Pakhtunkhwa) and curiosity drove me into Peshawar’s infamous Dabgari bazaar, the ancient quarter of the musicians, dancing girls and khusre. Conversing with some of these entertainers I came to know that khusre traditionally sing and dance during festivities such as the birth of a son, the ritual circumcision of a boy, and especially weddings as well as engagements. In a city like Peshawar they have traditional relationships to families, maintaining an excellent information system to know when and where a joyous ritual event is taking place. In addition to these rites of passage they are also invited to private male-only parties. Miro, the leader and main Guru of Dabgari’s khusre in those days, advised me to visit Lahore’s Hira Mandi or ‘Diamond Market’ which is the most important place in Pakistan to meet people of the ‘third gender’. Thus, in order to learn more about the important cultural role of the khusre and the gendered significance of their community I travelled to Lahore in April 1992 accompanied by my wife. Here, in the heart of the Punjab, they are known as khusre.
A manufacturer of musical instruments whom I had met earlier to study his craft introduced us to his neighbours upstairs – Gogi, the Guru of this khusre household, who was in her late thirties, Mahwash, her favourite disciple, and a young, shy transvestite who worked as a servant, cleaning, cooking and running errands. All three were chewing betel. Small chickens were tripping around on the floor of the one-room apartment. In the corner there was a refrigerator, on the wall a large mirror, and a small TV had been put up on a board. Photographs of Gogi dressed as a gorgeous and seductive-looking woman adorned the walls; she had even played some minor roles in Punjabi films. In addition to posters of Mecca and Medina, she had put up two iconic posters depicting the shrine of the charismatic Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a spiritually-intoxicated ‘friend of God’ who venerated God through trance-like dance, thus becoming the patron saint of all entertainers. After exchanging greetings Mahwash draped a gold-embroidered shawl around my wife, emphasising that in this way she would adopt her as her ‘sister’. Then we sat down for tea and started chatting about their lives in Hira Mandi, particularly about their performances.
In a loud and high-pitched voice, clapping her hands in strong beats, Gogi demonstrated the characteristic way for khusre to accompany their songs in which it is made plain to bride and bridegroom not to forget their matrimonial duties. The language of these fertility songs is often rude and full of sexual innuendo. Gogi added that they would also entertain their audience with romantic film songs. Singing and handclapping is accompanied by the playing of a small drum. In the event of the birth of a baby boy, they would expose the male genitals to the public. Gogi then pointed out that her group would entertain at all sorts of family festivities and happy occasions to ensure fertility and good luck; when a new house was constructed or a new shop was opened they would also appear and perform, even if not officially invited to do so. If somebody dared to turn them away without giving any money, they would curse him – a bad omen at such an auspicious occasion. Thus, the khusra is thought to have sacred powers – and this not only holds true for Muslims in Pakistan, but for Hindus, Sikhs and members of other religions in South Asia as well. She plays an auspicious role through blessing and bestowing fertility as well as by healing. Mothers still often take ailing babies to the khusra for spiritual healing. At the same time the khusra is feared because of her power to curse and thus to convey inauspiciousness. However, following the Pakistani Jungian psychologist Durre Ahmed, these opposites are not seen as warring ‘contradictions’ of either right or wrong, but rather as complementary, conciliatory and healing potentialities within the transcendent ideal of an all-embracing, equally ‘gendered’ male/female divinity embodied in the Greek deity Hermes. In her view the khusra appears as a mythic symbol of the traditional ideal of unity in diversity, unlike the exclusively masculine hero of modernity.
In any case, the body plays a central role in the ‘construction’ of the ‘third gender’, not only in terms of emasculation, but especially concerning adopting female dress and adornment. Thus Gogi continued explaining that usually in late afternoons they would start dressing up, sorting out their finery, selecting jewellery and putting on heavy make-up. She added that some apply cream on their breasts, squeezing them in a way to shape small female-looking breasts. All the khusre I talked to over the years expressed their desire for this symbol of femininity. Many tried to sculpt a female body by ingesting or even injecting female hormones. For tailoring their dresses, Gogi continued, they would regularly see a special master, known as ‘Jo-Jo-Darzi’, who lived in another part of Lahore. Sometimes Gogi visits a nearby beauty parlour. Then she would move out with her ‘dans party’ for an evening ‘booking’ (three to four per week on average), where they dance in disco style for a male audience. I asked her if they would dress in the same shiny and embroidered clothes when touring the bazaar collecting alms, as I had seen earlier on occasion. She responded in the negative, saying that they would make this daily tour in their assigned locality in ordinary female clothes, and that the little money they received from shopkeepers would not be ‘alms’ but dues (vadhai) they could rightfully demand. During the month of Ramadan they would also cover themselves like women.
Gogi further confirmed that a ritual takes place when a new entrant is accepted into the community. In the presence of a larger group of khusre the left nostril of the female-dressed disciple is pricked with a needle by her Guru and a black thread is passed through. She is then presented with shawls and with money for buying bangles by all those present.
The khusra caste
In a ritual context the khusre form a professional caste. When a young khusra leaves her family, she also cuts the links to her Punjabi caste, enters a new household, receives a new name and is sometimes (but not always) ritually initiated, whereby her male genitals are totally removed (the so-called nirvan operation). Khusre emphasise that this is done to kill the nafs, that is to say the ‘lower self’ or ‘animal soul’ within the terminology of the Sufi tradition, which is a strong current among the Muslim members of the ‘third gender’. Documentary films on India often focus in a detailed, voyeuristic way on this risky operation, in which an old, experienced khusra cuts off penis and testicles with a sharp knife and treats the wound with boiling oil and herbs to avoid infections. In Pakistan as well as in India this total emasculation is now also done under clinical conditions in hospitals. At the Dabgari bazaar in Peshawar I heard about another, less sensational initiation into this caste, whereby the candidate is seated on a wooden penis soaked in oil and thus penetrated.
Years ago I discovered that Gogi, the Guru, had never been castrated herself; she/he even had a son, and started to grow a beard again. This shows that the newly-acquired social identity is in fact more important than ritual castration. The khusre in Pakistan perceive themselves as a distinct community with a distinct identity. Their caste is divided into several units or clans and even smaller segments named after different localities or an apical ancestor, and differentiated through ranking. However, unlike other Punjabi castes the khusre kinship groups lack a permanent ascription; thus individuals and smaller units may change their affiliation and join a new household headed by a Guru. The latter is the spiritual as well as financial patron of a number of disciples, usually five or six, but sometimes also less. They all live together in her household. The Guru is the undisputed head of the household who makes decisions and mediates conflicts among her disciples. The latter often have peculiar fancy female names, such as Ashi, Lucy, Bobi, Goshi or Anmol. According to their customary rules, disciples have to hand over one third of their income to their Guru; in addition they give her gifts, such as jewellery and sweets. The relations between households and other topics of khusra politics are sorted out in larger assemblies headed by a main Guru, the chaudhry guru. Within the caste hierarchy of the khusre those Gurus with the highest number of disciples, and the most beautiful, female-looking among them are ranked in the highest positions. It is considered essential for a chaudhry guru to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca, after which she wears white dress only, or at least no loud colours. When a Guru dies, her successor (usually her eldest disciple) has to invite all the khusre of Lahore for a three-day feast after the mourning period of forty days.
As far as recruitment to the caste is concerned, common hearsay as well as narratives in colonial literature have it that khusre claim children with ‘deformed’ or ‘ill-developed’ genitalia. According to another view, such children are handed over to the community by the parents themselves. However, what I learned from young khusre in Peshawar and Lahore is that they were attracted to this particular way of life with its cross-dressing and worship of the feminine, and therefore joined this caste.
Khusre classify themselves explicitly as faqirs (ascetics). As pointed out by the anthropologist Georg Pfeffer, ‘the khusre have sacrificed their own sexual fulfilment and regenerative powers for the others. They have thus fertilised all others. For this reason, they are of exceptional auspicuousness’. Thus their khusra existence can be understood as sacrifice, having given their sex to the world for the sake of God and service to humanity. This identity and self-representation became apparent to me when I encountered older khusre who did not dance or perform any more, but practised an ascetic way of life through mendicancy. When khusre grow old, having lost their attractiveness, most of them have to live in miserable conditions as the social position of a Guru is only achieved by a few. Thus they have to work as servants for other khusre. More fortunate are those who work as domestic servants for upper class Pakistani families.
Faithful domestic servant: Neeli
Neeli, the servant of my host in Lahore, joined the household some fifteen years ago. She is now in her early forties. Having grown up in the town of Jhang in the heart of the Punjab, she is still not at ease with the metropolis. Working as a gentle, diligent and attentive domestic servant, she is trusted by her landlady. At times Neeli, the transvestite, has the urge to join her khusre friends, and mysteriously disappears then for days or even weeks at a stretch before remorsefully returning home. Dressed in a plain shirt and trousers like an average Pakistani male, just with slightly longer hair, she cross-dresses only occasionally to entertain house guests. Then she delights in dancing and mimicking the gestures of the heroines in Bollywood films.
Marginalisation through modernity
For centuries the khusre fulfilled their traditional social and ritual roles, until modernity brought disruption and finally a partial loss of their symbolic status. Thus, in sexually puritan Pakistan, which is increasingly dominated by the ‘moral terror’ of Wahhabi-inspired Islamist movements, they are not as often invited to family celebrations as in earlier times. This has forced them increasingly into prostitution (which had always been a secret source of income for them) and begging. Frequently, their roadside begging in Lahore or Karachi close to traffic lights or in the markets and bazaars is aggressive, at times sinister. Some eke out a living as circus freaks, dancing in the ‘well of death’ surrounded by motorbikes roaring up the vertical walls of the drum. Khusre are frequently harassed and abused by the police, and their rights are seldom respected when they are raped or are the victims of other criminal assaults. In recent times the mullahs of orthodox, scriptural Islam have furiously condemned the ‘third gender’, which has been an integral part of traditional South Asian culture since ancient times. The result is that they are now increasingly treated with contempt and even subjected to violent attacks. Quoting sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, who cursed effeminate men (al-mukhannathin), the mullahs try their best to stigmatise the khusre.
But, although increasingly marginalised in the dark times of Talibanisation, the sacred power of the khusre still shimmers through, when they bring laughter, enjoyment and blessings, but also when they curse somebody. In Pakistan they continue to go on pilgrimages to their beloved Sufi saints, such as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Barri Imam, Madho Lal Husain, Bullhe Shah and others, where they proudly perform spectacular dances, whirling with their long hair.Social activists among Pakistani khusre, such as Bindiya Rana from Karachi who founded Gender Interactive Alliance, as well as Laila Naz from Lahore who established the Sathi Foundation, are nowadays prominent representatives who seek to empower their community. Their aims are, in particular, to get computerised national identity cards (CNIC) issued, to raise HIV/AIDS awareness, to work on skilled education, to open old age homes for their community, and to safeguard the human rights of the third gender in Pakistan.
The Islamic scholar heads the Islam Department of the Munich State Museum of Ethnology. He has published numerous books on Pakistan, most recently the travelogue of a pilgrimage entitled Am Schrein des Roten Sufis [At the Shrine of the Red Sufi].
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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