A small victory for Pakistan's transgenders

The nation's hijra community -- mostly eunuchs and hermaphrodites -- has long lived on the margins in the Muslim nation, barely tolerated and more often abused. A new ruling gives its members some rights.

Reporting from Rawalpindi, Pakistan — Wearing a red knit bonnet, matching lipstick and a shawl over her large shoulders and muscular forearms, Nanni gently sought to clear up some confusion as the call to prayer sounded from a nearby mosque.

"I'm a 'she-male,' " said Nanni, a kind of den mother for a dozen or so fellow hijra, or transgender people, in a rundown neighborhood of Rawalpindi. "We all are."

Sharing two small rooms halfway along a dark dirt alley and up a steep flight of steps, Nanni's family is one made, not born: a community of outcasts forced together after their families abandoned them, their indeterminate sex unnerving this patriarchal society -- especially the ascendant Pakistani Taliban.

"We are God's creatures," Nanni said. "Even if many people don't accept us, we feel the same here in the den as if we are of the same blood. We do everything to take care of one another."

Dominating one room was a rough-hewn double bed that the dozen or so hijra, some more than 6 feet tall, use in shifts. The walls were covered with pictures of hijra beauties of the Mughal era that ended more than a century ago, a time when transgender people were not only accepted but also enjoyed significant power and prestige.

Asked whether the hijra family members were all congenital eunuchs and hermaphrodites, Nanni, 35, insisted that they were all born that way. To prove the point, she ordered Akri, a hermaphrodite whose broad face was softened by mascara and a scarf, to drop her traditional outfit and show her private parts.

Hijra have long been stigmatized and subject to discrimination and abuse in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, with its rigorously defined roles for men and women. But in a landmark decision in December, the Supreme Court ordered that they be protected from police harassment, be eligible for a separate gender category on ID cards and be recognized under inheritance laws.

"We need proper rights," said Noor, a 21-year-old member of Nanni's household. "No one listens to our concerns."

Although nascent legal status is a first step, social acceptance is likely to take far longer. Noor and the others said police officers and residents often beat, harass, rob and sexually abuse them.

"You get used to it," said Nanni, who as the guru, or head of the hijra family, is combination parent, boss and enforcer. "It only shows how stupid their mentality is."

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