Dancing for a better life: transgender people in Pakistan
Life is anything but easy for "hijras" (transgender people) in Pakistan, where men dressed in women's clothes are still considered an affront. Hijras identify themselves as third gender individuals. Photographers Muhammed Muheisen and Shakil Adils' photographs provide a fascinating insight into their everyday lives. By Monika Griebeler
When night falls in the city of Rawalpindi, Waseem starts to dance. The 27-year-old performs as a "hijra", the third gender. Estimates suggest that there are up to 800,000 transgender people in Pakistan. They are especially popular as dancers at weddings and other such events because their prayers are deemed very effective. However, these are the only occasions where they are truly accepted.
By day, Waseem sells mobile phone accessories. By night, he is a female party dancer. This is not without its risks. For this reason, most of his colleagues and friends are not aware of what he does in the evenings.
Waseem transforming into Rani. For Waseem, leading this double life is a way of achieving a better life: "Being a dancer helps me to earn much more money than working in a shop," he says. For true hijras, life is a constant fight. In many cases, those who can't work as dancers drift into prostitution. All of them – Waseem included – face harassment and abuse.
Many devout Muslims hate these "creatures between men and women". Radical Islamists openly attack them in public. That's why the hijras shy away from the world, preferring to remain within their close-knit community. "Eyes follow me when I walk out of the apartment," says 43-year-old Bakhtawar. "Being with other dancers is like being with a family. When I am surrounded by them, I feel safe, respected and empowered".
The way they like to see themselves: many hijras prefer to flee these stares to the anonymity of a big city, keeping their true selves from colleagues or family, even though Pakistani law is rather progressive in this regard: in 2011, a Supreme Court ruling officially recognised the third gender. Hijras can now have this gender indicated in their passports, are allowed to vote, open bank accounts and work legally – helping some get away from prostitution.
For the first time, transgender people like Bindiya Rana (pictured on the right) ran for the country's parliament in the 2013 elections. Although not elected, Rana and the NGO in which she works continue to fight for equality and an end to discrimination. After all, new laws do not automatically bring about a major change in the public mindset in conservative Pakistan.
Leading a double life: even today, only few transgender people openly present their identity with as much pride as 44-year-old Amjad, who says: "The only thing that I can't do as a woman is conceive babies".