If, in the run-up to the general elections in Pakistan, you haven’t heard of a candidate by the name of Bindiya Rana, I won’t hold it against you. Centre-stage characters – Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari, and the new-ish kid on the block, Imran Khan, have devoured much of the media space. Yet, it is folks like Rana who are leading a quiet, potential cultural revolution amidst the madness of electioneering as Pakistan readies for a fresh round of timely elections.
And just who is Bindiya Rana ? She heads the Gender Interactive Alliance, an NGO that acts on behalf of the transgender community, better known in Pakistan as the Khwaja Sira community or less pleasantly to the rest of South Asia as the hijra community. Both Rana and Sanam Fakir, president of the Sanam Welfare Association in Sukkur, will be the first transgender people to be running for elections in Pakistan. Both are vying provincial assembly seats on strong anti-corruption mandates, and promise that new legislation – that has given them the power to vote, will bring in hundreds, if not thousands of new voters from their community.
The legal credit goes to the supreme court of Pakistan, which accorded the Khwaja Sira a right to a third-gender category and the ability to record-it-as-it-is in newly issued National Registration and Database Authority stamped identity cards. In November 2011, the SC ordered the election commission to collect data on the community and register them to vote.
Of course, not all is rosy in this contested space. For one thing, despite the SC order, less than a third of the country’s presumed 500,000-strong transgender community have been given ID cards. There are also a number of representative bodies that differ on how the community should be identified; in addition to the two organizations mentioned above, there are the Shemale Foundation of Pakistan and the All Pakistan Eunuch’s Association.
What’s got the entire legal apparatus working out the rights of one small community when suppression of all others seems to be the norm? Could it be fear of an impending bane or the lust for a big, badass boon?
For a healthy does of reality, we turn to Bihar. It turns out that since 2000, efficient local tax collectors discovered that hiring hijras as contract tax collectors could significantly enhance their collection rate. The idea worked – and those who would normally shut the door on the mid-level revenue official – coughed up their dues when confronted by the embarrassment of a public spectacle right outside their elite homes. For their good offices, the participating hijras received 4% of all collections.
Inspired by their South Asian brethren, the folks in the income tax offices in Pakistan found this to be a good, if not brilliant, idea. The result would have the direct benefit of extracting revenue for the state, and the side one of distracting the community from sex work. The only difference in the approaches – and an important one – is that in Pakistan, official jobs – with benefits – were created for the Khwaja Sira folks. I wonder, however, what the job position is titled. Can you apply if you’re not from the community? In any case, the tactic seems to be working from the point of view of state revenue earnings.
Normally Scroogish folks rush over to pull out 1,000 rupee notes sewn into their mattress springs in the hope that the hijra – known to have spiritual powers endorsed in the once-syncretistic traditions of this region – will dance, clap and sing showering boons over banes.
The writer is a Delhi-based Pakistani journalist