Modern Slavery: Inside the Transgender Communities of India and Pakistan

Our world is imbued with contradictions and opposing realities which inform our lives. Nowhere is this more evident than in our social setting. While some reap benefits of the rights and privileges bestowed upon them, others remain tangled in the subjugating mesh of society. The trapped transgenders either end up mangled under the massive burden of gender roles or end up conforming to the gender expectations ascribed to the sex in which they were not born, as a means of expression.

The accident of birth has had serious ramifications on many, but none have been affected as gravely as the transgender. Betrayed by their bodies, and disowned by their families and communities, the transgender (including the eunuch and the intersex), popularly termed as hijras in India and Pakistan, live as social outcasts, misfits for committing the grave crime of expressing their identities. Their existence itself poses a great threat to social conceptions of gender and sex.

Living in such countries, especially Pakistan where a manic obsession with gender roles reigns over every soul, certainly isn’t easy. The slightest deviation from societal conventions may result in ostracisation and humiliation; primarily the reason why the community is forced into darkness, into total seclusion. The expression of individuality comes at the great price of losing honour and respect. Having been stripped of all rights and dignity, they are forced into begging, prostitution, dancing as a means to earn their living.

The history of mankind has largely revolved around freedom, power and recognition. It is a human need to be recognised and respected by others. Our identities form the very basis of our personhood. This is primarily why we assert ourselves wherever we go. We want our presence to be felt. But what if somebody just takes it all away from us? It would cause a massive dent on our personhood. This is precisely what the transgender community undergoes. Society robs them of their personhood. Life for them is suffering; it begins with gender dysphoria and their struggle to recognise themselves and ends with society deeming them as weeds unfit to be with others; the normal lot.

Forced to remain hidden from the public eye, they form secret communities that observe their own mysterious codes and customs. One such custom is the rite of initiation, where every new transgender wishing to join the community must go through the painful procedure of emasculation and then be accepted by a guru, who assumes a paternalistic role in the life of the newly initiated novice. The guru – novice relationship forms the bedrock of the transgender community. This is where things start turning really dark.

The initiate or the novice, who is purchased in exchange of money, is literally at the mercy of the guru. She is penalised and punished severely if she fails to discharge the duties imposed on her. And if at all she decides to leave, she is shunned from the entire community. After being purchased, the novice is then forced by the guru into performing professions like begging, dancing, etc. to earn money; a major chunk of which goes to the guru. This practice almost seems like a modern form of slavery, but because of how inherent it is to the culture, it goes unquestioned and unopposed. Sadly, the tradition which was created to protect starts fettering them and taking away their freedom.

Under the tremendous pressure imposed by the gurus, the novices at times may even have to indulge in sex work for money. Since they are denied all respectable jobs, several transgenders have to undergo this torment. They are coerced, tortured, raped- all under the knowledge of their gurus. Unable to complain to the authorities and fearing further harassment, they are forced to remain silent.

For the young transgender, there remains no respite. On one end, they have to deal with repression from society and on the other, the monopoly of the greedy gurus. Another threat looming over their reality is the possibility of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases. Living in denial, they refuse to get themselves medically examined and continue living in unsafe conditions. They, nevertheless, continue existing, because for them nothing can surpass the feeling of power that comes along with expressing oneself and getting acknowledged as the person one wishes to be. The exhibition of identity becomes the sole purpose of their existence.

Coming back to the guru-novice relationship, it’s important to understand that no cultural practice is free of fault. As in the case of this relationship, every cultural practice harbours in itself certain forms of darkness, often hidden from the rest of the world. The only way out here, is for change to come from the outside, so that these cultural practices automatically dismantle and disintegrate, without being meddled with. Change is slowly coming about; transgenders in India and Pakistan are being recognised as a third gender. With a state-issued identity of their own, they can now avail opportunities previously known only to the two genders, and therefore, reduce their dependence on the guru-novice practice.

Acceptance in society can only come with greater visibility. For an all-inclusive world, the transgender community, with all its eccentricity and richness, must be integrated into the mainstream of society. There exists a need to create space for identity to breathe, which must then be recognised and respected. Especially in Asian countries where these groups are attached to labels of abnormality, there is a necessity to uproot the social stigma surrounding their existence. This can only happen when we begin to recognise them as humans before ascribing a gender identity to them.


Namya Tewari

Hi! I'm a student of philosophy who loves reading nerdy stuff and hoarding books. I'm greatly inspired by the works of Kahlil Gibran and aspire to write like him one day. And did I forget to mention, I daydream about the impossible. Yes that's it!

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