On the Edges of The Binary and Society: Sufism’s Role in Social Tolerance of Hijra and Transgender Communities in Pakistan (Academic Article)

Islamic society has been wary of accepting gender nonconforming individuals such as transgender people and hijras in South Asia. They face violence, discrimination from families, society, and the government, and rampant poverty within this group. Yet with Sufism as a major tradition in Pakistan, the second largest Islamic state, social tolerance towards the hijra and transgender community has been beginning to manifest in mainstream society. This paper looks at the relationship between Sufi traditions in Pakistan and the rights and status of hijras and transgender people in society. The research analyzes how hijras and gender transgression in South Asian and Sufism history lay the foundation for greater basic rights in modern day Pakistan. This relation has not been popularly studied as information between the two are limited. However, their recent political gains making noteworthy news shines a light on the progressing conditions of these communities. These conditions are progressing both in Pakistan and in other Islamic communities hosting a noticeable Sufi influence in social and political life.. Recognized as a “third gender,” hijras are now able to vote and run for office in Pakistan, and Sufism’s history of accepting gender transgression and the basic teachings of love and tolerance towards all beings facilitates greater rights to gender variant people.
Hijra Identity
The hijra population encompasses a wide range of identities as among those include male, female, or third gender, transgender (as an umbrella), cross-dressers, or eunuchs. For Western Non Government Organizations (NGOs) and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) rights groups, hijras are considered under the umbrella term of transgender, as they are those who fall outside of the gender binary through expression or identity. In Pakistan, the term hijra regards to individuals whose gender identity does not necessarily follow the social binary. The term hijra varies from Western definitions of transgender people in regards to gender identity and expression.

-Hijras’ History in The Indian Subcontinent
The hijra community in the Indian subcontinent have existed in society since around 200 C.E. and held a high status in society. Being that many of them were eunuchs, hijras “were in popular demand to guard women quarters of royal households” (Sharma 2012: 65) . Eunuchs were seen as important and valuable guards for the harems and women as they did not hold sexual desires nor participated in sexual relations, increasing their social status and employment. The concept of third gender and dual gender in religions such as Hinduism in the Indian subcontinent are also widespread . Gods include Ardhanarishvara, which is a gender neutral combination of Shiva and Parvati. Though the image of hijras around the region was mostly popular and accepting, it was the British Raj and new rules that produced social stigma and discrimination against the hijra community. The British’s finding of the hijra community caused a negative effect, as they saw “another of the ‘barbarous practices’ of the Hindus” (Preston 1987: 377). The British Raj saw the hijra community as outside the gender norms and not compatible with society. The deep seeded social stigma continued even to this day through various aspects of social and political life. Another more modern threat towards the hijra community has been the more conservative Islamic political groups such as Jamaat e-Islami. Jamaat e-Islami, favoring a conservative Islamic state, has been known in Pakistan for harrassing hijras and even sending to advocates“death threats from Shabab-e-Milli, an offshoot of the youth wing of Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami” (Walsh 2010). The effects upon the hijra community due to discrimination include high levels of violence from both citizens and government officials, HIV infections, poverty, and homelessness. However, the current movements of hijra rights groups both withing Pakistan and internationally are gaining traction in a socially conservative society. The hijra community now recently are making strong progressing movements in the political arena.

-Third Gender in Politics and Society
In 2009, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled for a third gender option to be provided on identification cards and allowed transgender individuals to run for government offices. The effects of this ruling stated that hijras “can vote and stand as a ‘third gender’” (Burke 2013). The ruling also worked to provide greater government jobs for the hijra community and transgender individuals. The voice from the hijra community , along with help from NGO’s both in Pakistan and Western countries, has continued efforts to create change and positive reforms in society to bring this misunderstood part of Pakistani society into the mainstream social realm. However, despite the political gains stemming from the Supreme Court’s decision in 2009, the hijra community remains marginalized and subjected to attacks, discrimination, and poor living conditions. Due to the community’s marginalization by society, transgender people face a high rate of HIV infections from prostitution and lack of health care for gender variant people. Hijras, discriminated against in the work place, often resort to prostitution in order to support themselves and their communities, only adding to a perception of gender variant people as sub human. While NGO’s and Hijra communities work within the political system to create greater civil and political rights, the biggest decider in tolerance and acceptance into daily Pakistani life is the society itself. Though the recent rulings from Pakistan’s Supreme Court places the transgender community on a progressive track, the social stigma and misunderstanding continues and further fuels fears and aggression towards the community. Transgender rights activist Zeba said that “nobody listens to our outcry. Now look at how these locals, along with police, have attacked our homes. They destroyed our household items and beat us badly. Some of our friends are now in the hospital. They injured us badly” (Barbar 2013). Zeba discussed the attack on their home as they were dragged out by police with upset neighbors in the area. While conservative groups call hijras and gender variant people unIslamic, other residents have expressed their concern about transgender neighbors and their poor living conditions. They have pressured landlords “to evict any transgender residents” (Barbar 2013). The mixture of conservative religious views, misinformation, and the effects of widespread discrimination and lack of basic care have upheld the social stigma in Pakistan. It is through a mix of education provided by the transgender community, NGOs (both domestically and internatinally), and Sufism’s accepting views towards gender transgression that have the potential of shaping a progressive Pakistani society and creating better living and working conditions for hijras and gender variant people. Sufism’s focus on spirituality rather than laws and political power creates a more welcoming aspect of Islam, even adapting to some of the local customs in the region which they reside in.

-Gender Transgression in Sufism
Gender transgression is not unknown to Sufism within the Indian subcontinent which would give rise to the modern state of Pakistan. The subject has been presented by Shah Hussain, a Sufi poet of Punjabi descent. Shah Hussain is famous for his poetry, including poems in relation to Madho, a Brahmin boy he had fell in love with. Shah Hussain “asserted that sexual play is the best path towards spiritual cultivation,” (Kugle 2007: 194) taking the notion literally that physical contact served as a connection of spirituality, compassion, and shared spiritual power. Hussain often wrote poems in a feminine voice and transgressed the boundaries of gender norms in order to embody playfulness in worship and religion. For Sufis in the time of Hussain, gender transgression was not viewed as immoral or against society but as a form of surrender and opening oneself to all possibilities. Kugle argues that Sufis in South Asia “inverted gender roles or cultivated homoerotic actions in order to show supplication” (Kugle 2007: 208). Even Musa Sada Sohag, a Sufi saint, took on complete gender transgression. A Sufi scholar, Sohag had previously condemned female prostitutes who were dancing at a Sufi shrine in Delhi. Yet on his journey to Mecca and Medina, a voice “spoke to him, asking him how he could dare to visit the Prophet when his Sufi patron in Delhi remained annoyed.” Sohag “realized that his stray thought—criticizing the courtesans and prostitutes who danced before Nizam al-Din’s tomb—had angered the long-dead Sufi master” (Kugle 2010: 255). His actions in order to ask for forgiveness and employ empathy was to take on the form of those he condemned who held good intent and aim. As a form of renouncing the patriarchal standard of maleness, Sohag “took on women’s clothes and behaviors in a permanent transgression of gender norms and was perceived as a saint with special affinity for the Hijras, or men who become women in South Asia” (Kugle 2007: 209). Sohag’s gender transgression here is seen as an act of Sufi Sainthood as well as reinforcing the enlightenment he found. Sufism holds a history of tolerance of hijras and practice of transgression gender norms whether part of religious tradition or social action. The link here between religious tolerance and a widespread tradition is the possibility to foster a more welcoming environment in Pakistan. The hijra community has the potential to become accepted and adapted into daily social life should those practicing Sufism embrace this part of their history for modern day Pakistan.

-Conservative Islamic Groups in Pakistan
Sufism in Pakistan today constitutes as a predominant tradition and acts as a influential force in society. This group stands out in stark contrast to the more fundamentally conservative groups and hard line Islamists, such as the Taliban who sees Sufi movements as heresy. These same Islamist groups target members of the LGBT society, including the Hijra community. These two groups share a common adversary and opposing force. Because of Sufi traditions, radical Islamists aligned with the Taliban have been responsible for attacks against the Sufi community (along with the hijra and LGBT as well as anyone supporting them as stated before). There have been multiple attacks against Sufis over the years, more dominant during 2010 with around 64 people killed (Imtiaz 2011). Tactics used have included bombing shrines while worshipers gather in the area. While attacks on Sufis and Sufi shrines have been largely apparent, the Taliban are not the only ones at work. Multiple Islamic groups such as Al-Qaeda and Jammat-e-Islami are able to work inside the country due to the effects caused by the spillover from Afghanistan, poor government, high poverty and illiteracy rates, and lack of security. Yet, Sufism’s efforts to create a safer and more tolerant environments leads as a major player in extending tolerance and open arms to the hijra community and a path far from the Islamic groups set to destroy them. Similar to how many Muslims and Islamic groups are against Al Qaeda’s actions and views, many followers of Sufism have been organizing against the Taliban in Pakistan and other more conservative Islamic groups. The Barelvi movement, which incorporates Sufi traditions and practices, have been organizing groups against the Taliban. By the first half of 2009, The Barelvi movement’s foundational groups “only included eight parties; today it comprises 60 and counting” (Abouzeid 2010). The constant attacks on Sufis and their temples have pushed many into action through protests or political action to prevent attacks.

Gripped by the effects of a gender binary and patriarchal society, hijras and transgender people face widespread discrimination, violence, and misunderstanding about their communities and lifestyles. Though the political arena through the Supreme Court of Pakistan has worked to extend greater political rights to these communities, one of the ultimate forces aiding equality and safety for hijras is the society at large. The dominant Sufi tradition practiced in Pakistan has a strong potential to integrate gender variant people into mainstream society and at least lessen the rampant discrimination and violence towards hijra and transgender communities. As violence between these two communities, Sufism has the opportunity to take action to rid hard line parties operating in Pakistan. While most Sufi shrines welcome hijras and help those in need, the effects of Sufi traditions and tolerance broadcast across the nation will transform Pakistan into a country working towards greater integration of gender variant people (hijra and transgender communities included). History can be repeated and learned from, and the Sufi’s past Saints acknowledging and accepting gender transgression paints a brighter future for hijras living in Pakistan and within the whole region of Sufism’s influence.

-Works Cited

Abouzeid, Rania. Time, “Taliban Targets, Pakistan’s Sufi Muslims Fight Back.” Last modified November 10, 2010. Accessed April 13, 2014. http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2030741,00.html.

Burke, Jason. “Pakistan’s once-ridiculed transgender community fight elections for first time.” theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media, 10 May 2013. Web. Accessed: 8 Apr. 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/09/pakistan-transgender-elections-campaign-trail.

Barbar, Majeed, and Ron Synovitz. Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, “Despite Gains, Pakistan’s Transgender Community Under Attack.” Last modified October 26, 2013. Accessed April 13, 2014. http://www.rferl.org/content/pakistan-transgender-eunuchs/25148690.html.

Imtiaz, Huma, and Charlotte Buchen. “The Islam That Hard-Liners Hate.” At War The Islam That HardLiners Hate Comments. N.p., 6 Jan. 2011. Web. 8 Apr. 2014. .

Irshad, Muhammad. “Terrorism in Pakistan: Causes & Remedies.” Dialogue (1819-6462) 6, no. 3: 224-241. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 8, 2014)

Kugle, Scott. “Dancing with Khusro: Gender Ambiguities and Poetic Performance in a Delhi Dargah” in Richard Martin and Carl Ernst (eds.), From Orientalism to Cosmopolitanism: Changing Approaches to Islamic Studies (University of South Carolina Press, 2010): 245-265.

Kugle, Scott. Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2010.

Kugle, Scott. 2007. Sufis & Saints’ Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, & Sacred Power in Islam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press

Preston, Laurence W. 1987. “A Right to Exist: Eunuchs and the State in Nineteenth-Century India.” Modern Asian Studies 21 (2): 371-87.

Sharma, Preeti. 2012. “Historical Background and Legal Status of Third Gender in Indian Society.” IJRESS vol 2 issue 12: 64-71. December 2012.

Walsh, Declan. “Harassed, intimidated, abused: but now Pakistan’s hijra transgender minority finds its voice.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 30 Jan. 2010. Web. 8 Apr. 2014. .

Presented at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference at Indianapolis in November 2014 and MESA Undergrad Workshop in Washington D.C November 2014



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