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The Khawaja Sara and Hijra: Gender and Sexual Identities Formation in Post-colonial Pakistan

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Society
Wordcount: 2682 words Published: 18th May 2020

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The Khawaja Sara and Hijra: Gender and sexual identities formation in Post-colonial Pakistan


“Trans folks or transgender” are the inclusive umbrella terms often used to represent and define the people whose gender identity and sexual expression differs from their sex at birth. It describes the diversity in individual gender and sexual identities who do not confirm the common ideas of the binary gender system. This includes the transsexual (those who are in the process of sexual re-assignment surgery for acquiring a new gender identity), transvestite/cross-dressing individual (those who regularly wear different clothes associated with different genders) and polygender (people who do not fall in the category of male and female identities).  Globally, Transgender identities and its recognition are widely supported with different policy/legislation and several trans* rights movements such as the Sex Discrimination (Gender Reassignment) Regulations (1999), the Gender Recognition Act (2004) and the Equal Treatment Directive (2004/113/EC) (Mitchell, 2009). In addition, the initiative of Virginia prince, a male cross dresser professor in launching the “American journal; Transvetia” in the United State in 1952 has laid the foundation of the transgender movement which were further supported with the events like; Cooper Do-nuts riots (1959), Compton cafeteria riot (1966), Stonewall riots (1959) along with individual efforts of Leslie Feinburg (1992), and CeCe Mcdonald (2012) being the transgender activists.

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The subject of transgender studies has gained the interest and attention of scholarship and research commentator in the field of development and academia in the last few decades to investigate the widening gap in the understanding of community towards the transgender gender and sexual identities. These global efforts are developing clarity of minds towards the social acceptability of transgender people in societies. The knowledge so far produced with the help of different research studies commentates, that trans people are victimized, marginalized, and socially excluded in several aspects (social, physiological, and physcological) in their lives upon their ambiguity in gender identities and sexual orientation. Their rights are violated, their bodies are humiliated, repeatedly bullied and harassed across the world. These transphobic events and negative attituded of the community are a reason for the less social acceptability of transgender in the mainstream society which requires careful and meaningful theoretical research in the light of sociological guiding principles. This thesis aims to explore how the ambiguity and ambivalence of transgender often called (Khawaja Sara and Hijra)  gender and sexual identities are developed in line with several forces in colonial sub-continent and post-colonial Pakistan.

The plural terms such as eunuchs, intersexed, sexually anomalous, trans people, trangender individual, trangender women, male to female, and trans folks are interchangeably used in transgender scholary debates and literature. The term Khawaja Sara and Hijra will be used thorough out this proposal/draft when referring to the gender variant individuals or population. These terms encompass a wide range of different identities, the difference in behaviour, and appearances that blur against the biological gender identities.

In Pakistan, those persons who in many western contexts would be identified as trans female/women/transgender are known as Khawaja Sara and/or Hijra (Khan, 2014). Khawaja Sara and Hijra as a distinct culture group in South Asia – predominantly found in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. They are often described as a hermaphrodite, neither men nor women or third gender who dressed as women in glittering dresses, heavily coated faces with makeup (Framework, 2018). Most of them are male but prefer to live and recognized like female due to their inclination to lead a feminine life. Pakistan is among the colonial countries where the gender and sexual identities of Khawaja Sara and Hijras are widely mis-understood in the post-colonial and contemporary period. They face familial rejection, are often forced to live in slum cities, and they face a lack of educational and employment opportunities. In general, their human rights are violated. (Alizai et al, 2017; Jami & Kamal, 2015). Their gender and sexual identities, social structures and relationships, lifestyle, and bodily modification are not fully welcomed and recognized in families, workplaces, schools, and other social contexts. They are often cursed, ridiculed, and abused for their means of making a living such as begging, singing, dancing, and sex work. However, they are simultaneously believed to be sacred individuals for the blessings they can give to newly married couples or their child for fertility and prosperity by doing a ritual performance of Badhai and collection of alms (Framework, 2018; Roughgarden, 2013).

Khawaja Sar and Hijra have a deep-rooted history of more than 4000 years in subcontinent along with the recognition of their sexual ambiguity in old ancient book Kama Sutra (Mal, 2018).  Kalra (2012) explaining, Indian mythology which provides hijras special powers of blessing, good luck, and fertility to the people. The statement expresses the strong inclination of androgyne in Hindu religion further linking with the major figures of the Hindu Great Tradition, such as Arjuna (who lives for a year as a eunuch in the epic, the Mahabharata), Shiva, Buhuchara Mata (the mother goddess), and Krishna, all of whom were associated with sexual ambivalence. The writer further cited Conner and Sparks (1997) statement that Hijras are famous for bringing peace and prosperity into the lives of individuals. Sometimes the people offer them money and gifts to avoid the curses they are believed to give to people who shun them (Wieringa, 2010). The ambivalence of this cursing and blessing has distanced the Khawaja Sara and Hijras from the general population where they are humiliated, and their rights are not considered as human rights. They are considered a highly disadvantaged, marginalized, and vulnerable group with limited economic and social opportunity, ambiguous civil, political, and legal rights (Alizai et al, 2017; Jami & Kamal, 2015).

Exploring the social challenges of Khawaja Sara and Hijra has become a significant subject of research and commentary in post-colonial Pakistan. Khan (2014), for example, discusses the challenges and struggle of Khawaja Sara and Hijras in the context of Post-colonial Pakistan in an ethnographic study conducted in Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan. That study suggested that:

“…As many Khwaja Sara find it difficult to find employment, many have turned to beg at road signals, where they ask for money from passengers in cars who are waiting for the light to change. Lack of opportunities to make a living has also turned Khawaja Sara to sex work, making them vulnerable to HIV and AIDS (Khan 2014, pp.1290-91)”. This means that Khawaja Sara has turned themselves to sex working and begging on roads, as the earning opportunity are hard to find and easily available for them in Pakistan. This involvement has further opened them to various infectious sexually transmitted diseases.

In addition, Nisar (2017), conducted an ethnographic study in Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city, and analysed the legal problem of Khawaja Sara and Hijras. The study reveals how trans* people are seen as neither man nor women. They experience administrative burdens and state obstructions in obtaining the legal identities. The research found that “due to high illiteracy rates, exclusion from their biological families and social stigmatization, most Khawaja Sira does not have legal IDs’ (Nisar 2017, pp.105). The researcher explains that the majority of the Khawaja Sara in Pakistan are illiterate and homeless. They are detached from their parental families upon their ambiguous gender identity. The findings further show that complexity in the documentation process and detachment from the families are the reason for less of Khawja Sara NIC registration in Pakistan.

Media commentators have also documented the stigma and discrimination faced by Khawaja Sara and Hijras. For example, a Lahore based news journal claims that parents react strongly towards their trangender children. They are abandoned by families, mocked by society, and forced to live on the margins. They also face discrimination and ill-treatment in the public and private sector. Social ties are weakened which forces them towards risky activities (Drf, 2018). Additionally, a Peshawar based journal covered the protest of Khawaja Sara and Hijras against violence, hate crime and target killing in Khyber Pukhtunkhawa. The news article reports that a total of 62 transgender women were murdered in the year 2017-18 in targeted killings, while the suspects are continuing to live freely. The article suggests that law enforcement agencies are not supporting the complaints of transgender people (Dawn, 2018).

The challenges and problems of Khawaja Sara and Hijra have recently been addressed in several policy developments in Pakistan. In May 2018, the Federal Government of Pakistan (National Assembly) passed the Transgender person (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018 (Redding, 2019). The Act, 2018 provides fundamental human rights to Khawaja Sara and Hijras, including the right to education, employment, vote, holding of public office, health, assembly, access to public space, registration of gender identities, and the right to property in inheritance. In addition, the Act forbade the family members from violence and harassment towards them in houses, schools, hospitals, and workplaces. Moreover, it also seeks protection to the rights of Khawaja Sara and Hijras including to obtain National Identity Cards (NIC), passports and driving licences in the gender identity of their choice.

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The in-depth understanding of diversity in gender identities and paradoxes in sexual orientation are relatively un-explored in Pakistan. Existing research literature has mostly investigated the implication of negative attitudes from cis-gender persons, the daily routine of living life, the prevalence and high risk of HIV/AIDS, and problems of social exclusion. This research and commentary focus on social barriers faced by trans* people around the globe, and more specifically in Pakistan, tends to obscure or not focus on the factors promoting diverse gender and sexual identities (Saeed et al, 2017; Rehman et al, 2009; Wijangaarden et al, 2013).

Therefore, the purpose of this research is to investigate the diversification in gender identities and paradoxical sexual appearances of Khawaja Sara and Hijras in Islamabad within the context of post-colonial Pakistan. This comprehensive empirical and theoretical informed research will explore and analyse the factors which are developing ambiguous gender identities and ambivalence sexual appearance of Khawaja Sara and Hijras to overcome the paucity of information on the subject in both the academic and research. The social, economic, cultural and political forces will be examined which shapes out the non-normative gender identities and modernist sexuality in British Colonization, post-colonial Pakistan and contemporary period in Islamabad.

Research Question

1) How do the religious, social, cultural, economic and political forces shape pre-colonial and colonial understandings of Hijra/Khawaja Sara gender and sexual identities in the sub-continent?

2) How do the religious, social, cultural, economic and political forces shape post-colonial understandings of Hijra/Khawaja Sara gender and sexual identities in Pakistan?

3) How do the ways in which those who identify as Khawaja Sara and Hijra in Islamabad city negotiate these various forces in their processes of identity formation and sexual orientation?

Researcher brief skills

The researcher has served in the social welfare department in Pakistan which developed a strong personal relationship with Khawaja Sara, Hijras and the representative of their alloy’s organization. During the length of my service I  was engaged in baseline studies to find out the problems faced by Khawaja Sara and Hijras in Health, education, and civic education (a problem in CNIC registration), further organization of advocacy forums with the police department and mobilization events with civil society organization on the rights Khawaja Sara and Hijras which made me familiar with the topic and strengthen my connection with different stakeholders in the project area. In addition, I also worked as secretory/member in the sub-committee constituted with the subsequent order of Honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan to register transgender in the office of social welfare and NADRA (Copy of the notification attached). I have a sound background in conducting qualitative studies using different qualitative research methods. However, I will require to develop my data analyses skills and techniques using NVIVO software (data analysis software).  I will also seek to get some assistance and training on other different other software for referencing and citation i.e. Endnote or Zotero.


  • Alizai, A., Doneys, P., & Doane, D. L. (2017). Impact of gender binarism on Hijras’ life course and their access to fundamental human rights in Pakistan. Journal of homosexuality, 64(9), 1214-1240
  • Framework, r. (2018). Hijras as a third gender (Doctoral dissertation, Ghent University).
  • Jami, H., & Kamal, A. (2015). Measuring attitudes toward hijras in Pakistan: Gender and religiosity in perspective. Pakistan Journal of Psychological Research, 30(1).
  • Khan, F. A. (2019). Translucent Citizenship: Khawaja Sira Activism and Alternatives to Dissent in Pakistan. South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, (20).
  • Mitchell, M., & Howarth, C. (2009). Trans research review. Manchester: Equality and Human Rights Commission.
  • Nisar, M. A. (2017). Children of a Lesser God: Administrative Burden and Social Equity in Citizen–State Interactions. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 28(1), 104-119.
  • Rehan, N., Chaudhary, I., & Shah, S. K. (2009). Socio-sexual behaviour of Hijras of Lahore. Journal of Pakistan Medical Association, 59, 380–384.
  • Roughgarden, J. (2013). Evolution’s rainbow: Diversity, gender, and sexuality in nature and people. Univ of California Press.
  • Saeed, A., Mughal, u., & farooq, s. (2017). It’s complicated: socio-cultural factors and the disclosure decision of transgenders in Pakistan.
  • Wijngaarden, L.J., Schunter, B.T., & Iqbal, Q. (2013), Sexual abuse, social stigma and HIV vulnerability among young feminised men in Lahore and Karachi, Pakistan, Culture, Health and Sexuality, 15(1): 73-84.
  • https://digitalrightsfoundation.pk/increasing-violence-against-transgenders-in-khyber pakhtunkhwa/ retrieved on 26th May 2019
  • https://www.dawn.com/news/1428274 26th May 2019


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