QUEER CINEMA Transgenders: Pakistan's Open Secret

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Transgender: Pakistan's Open Secret is a documentary directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. Exploring some of the difficulties that are faced by the transgender community in Pakistan, the documentary focuses mainly on the close knitted community in Karachi, the most southern city of Pakistan.

Transgender is a term usually used to describe people who are born with typical male/female anatomy but believe they've been born into the wrong body. It is important to make the distinction between Transgender and Intersex, the latter of which is a term to describe people who are born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the typical definitions of male or female. Often the term Hijra is used as a monolith for the two in the Indian subcontinent, though in recent years Hijra is recognised by some as a derogatory term and has been replaced by Khwaja Sara.

The documentary is a deeply emotional watch, as hypocrisy, prejudice, hate and structural violence that the community faces are uncovered. The result is an unfiltered exposure into the everyday struggles that are faced by a community that has been forced to reside on the fringes of society. The documentary follows several Transgender Women as they struggle to obtain documentation that recognises their third gender (despite a 2010 ruling that recognised a Third Gender in Pakistan.) Highlighting the lack of support from the government, the violence that is endured by members of the community, being forced into sex work, the difficulty of obtaining documentation and everyday discrimination that is faced.

The criticism of sex work in the Transgender community by Clerics in the region is a clear example of the education that is needed. There is a failure in society to take into account the systemic violence that contributes to transgender people being ostracised, that forces them into sex work in the first place. As the documentary demonstrates with Maggie’s story; her dream is to be an air hostess but she gets rejected from everywhere she applies. This leads to her returning to the streets as a sex worker, as she shares in explicit detail the money she charges for sexual acts.

One thing the documentary doesn’t address is the effect of British Imperialism on Hijra’s rights. Under the Bitish Raj, Hijras were classed under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 which outlawed and criminalised their existence. In contrast, during the Mughal period, Hijras played an important role in the royal courts of the Islamic world. The prejudicial attitude left behind by British Colonialism, reflected in Pakistani society today, has had a devastating effect on their social standing, a factor the documentary fails to consider. A factor that if well publicised, could help to shed light on the history of the community and dispel common myths.

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The documentary is deeply effective in exposing some of the hardships that are faced by Transgender people in Pakistan. Some solutions are offered, which are in essence simplistic enough for the government to accomplish. For example the issuing of identity cards to transgender people who want one, void of any conditions (many Muslim Transgender people have identified that getting an ID card will mean that they can no longer travel to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj Pilgrimage.) Creating a quota for all businesses and establishments to hire Transgender people, increasing their security and improving their inclusion in society. Campaigns to promote safety for sex workers, many of whom identify as Transgender, and education about HIV prevalence and treatment. Educational structures, put into place in schools especially, to dispel myths and promote equality for the transgender community.

What will be more difficult to accomplish, though, is the destruction that British Imperialism has left behind. A mindset among the conservative society that treats the Transgender community as a Taboo topic. Though, for change to happen, the problems first have to be identified and for that, this documentary is truly a revolutionary act; towards what we are all hoping is a brighter future for the Transgender community of the Indian Subcontinent.

Further reading & links

Hyperbole and horror: hijras and the British imperial state in India
Historical Evolution of Transgender Community in India
Hijras – Part II – Colonization

Pakistan launches first school for Transgender people

A British Colonial Legacy

Blue Veins