By Maha Khan.
Hijras are a hidden community that many are aware of and have been around since 17th centuries as courtesans in the courts of Moghul emperors. They still lack representation due to Pakistan’s conservative Muslim ideologies and strict perceptions of gender. Hijra is an Urdu word that is blanket term for anyone who identifies as a eunuch, hermaphrodite, or transgender. Most do not have gender-reassignment surgery due to the expenses and unwilling doctors, but under the guidance of gurus they learn to wear makeup and dress in feminine clothes. There are vague estimates of around 50,000 Hijra people living in Pakistan, although there is no official consensus. With little support or access to education, Hijras often have no choice but to turn to begging and prostitution.
In 2009 the Supreme Court of Pakistan made a landmark decision, ordering the authorities to allow Hijras to identify as a third gender. While progress had been made, there was a catch that only Hijras with both biological parents or those that had been officially adopted could receive a government issued identity card. Hijras often run away from home and are ostracised by their families or cannot be formally adopted by the gurus that run their matriarchal community. Even if they are still accepted by their parents or are adopted, the National Database and Registration Authority requests that applicants must undergo humiliatingly intrusive medical examinations, a further obstacle to achieving their equality.
Hijras are often abused and discriminated against. Last year, a trans-woman called Alisha was gunned down and refused treatment at hospital, which led to her death. Since 2015 the number of transgender deaths is estimated at 45, but there are many cases that go unreported. Given Pakistani society’s hesitancy to discuss this issue and the government’s reluctance to make life easier for Hijras, it is wonderful that activists like Kami Sid exist. Kami Sid is Pakistan’s first transgender activist, blogger, model, and artist. She believes that “sex is between your legs. Gender is in your head.” By being vocal on social media and taking on acting roles Kami wants to show that Hijras can do more than sex work and dancing at weddings.
In a country where homosexuality is illegal, movies like Bol and Mawaan Rizwan’s documentary How Gay is Pakistan? are revolutionary and necessary works to give the LGBTQ+ community in South Asia hope and inspiration. Rani, which features Kami Sid as the lead character is another step forwards. Rani is a short film about a transgender woman who finds an abandoned baby and takes it home and soon realises the repercussions her decision will have on the child.
Hammad Rizvi is a US-based filmmaker but has been wanting to film in Pakistan for some time and wrote the script to draw attention to the disenfranchised members of society. On the nature of the subject he said: “Film is a medium that must bring sensitive topics to light”. Whether the movie is aimed at a Western or a domestic audience, he believes that the issues raised will resonate with audiences regardless of where they are and Pakistan is ready to come to terms with its rich history even if it’s “a rocky embrace at first”.
To be as authentic as possible, the movie features many transgender people who hadn’t received formal acting training before but the team at production house Grayscale fully supported them and Kami Sid’s dedication and practice allowed her to fall into the lead character of Rani with ease. Filming on location in Karachi with large crowd scenes made security an important component to planning, especially when the crowds became uncooperative and difficult to maintain. According to Rizvi, filming on location was so hectic, that he fell into an uncovered sewage manhole on the first day of filming.
Although Rizvi doesn’t feel Rani needs to be interpreted in any certain way, he wants to allow the audience to take a “hard look at how we treat one another based on labels and assumptions”. After the experience of making Rani, Rizvi would love to do another feature in Pakistan as there are many more fascinating stories to explore. He’s currently developing a story about a Pakistani-American family that brings social economic themes to the forefront.
Image by Mawaan Rizwan.