Transgenders — referred to in South Asia as khwaja seras in polite company, and hijras or khusras otherwise — are biological males who take on female identities, choosing to publicly dress and behave like women. The transgender population has a long history in the subcontinent, serving as the caretakers of Mughal harems and making significant contributions to art, music, and poetry. Ancient legend has it that a khwaja sera’s prayers and bad-dua are answered by God, bestowing them with the unique ability to bring good fortune and fertility. Despite their once respectable position in society, their status has significantly deteriorated over the years, forcing many into begging and prostitution.
Khwaja seras isolate themselves in self-sustaining, close-knit groups where a member leader, or guru, adopts transgender children after they have been rejected or disowned by their parents at a young age. Losing ties with their families and loved ones, khwaja seras become easy victims of extortion, abuse, and sexual harassment. Pinky, a 32 year old khwaja sera I met in Islamabad, came to terms with her transgender identity at the age of 12. "After my parents observed that I played with dolls and kitchen toys like all the other girls in my neighborhood, they insisted that I change my habits. When I didn’t, they beat me up." That was when she knew she was different from other boys.
Attitudes have begun to alter in Pakistan, despite the difficulties faced by the khwaja sera community. With countless documentaries and movies, like Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Transgenders: Pakistan’s Open Secret that highlight the plight of one of Pakistan’s most stigmatized communities, transgenders are slowly gaining greater approval in Pakistani society. Perhaps more importantly, the Supreme Court made a revolutionary judgment in 2011 that instituted a "third gender" category on National Identity Cards (NICs), empowering the transgender community and enabling them, for the first time in the country’s history, to be regarded as legal citizens.