Pakistan’s undesirables: ‘Dealing with’ the hijra problem

August 28, 2009

Kuvagam hijrasThere’s a thought-provoking post over at Sherryx’s Weblog (link here) about the hijra community in Pakistan.

(T-Vox carries this definition of hijra: “In the culture of the Indian subcontinent a hijra is a physically male or intersex person who is considered a member of ‘the third sex.'”)

Through the last month, Pakistani media celebrated the recognition of the citizenship rights of the hijra community by a Supreme Court ruling which declared them entitled to ‘protection guaranteed under Article four (rights of individuals to be dealt with in accordance of law) and Article nine (security of person) of the Constitution’. The ruling has been hailed as an important step toward the integration of ‘the Third sex’ into the Pakistani society, who are now going to be registered and surveyed (with ‘Third Sex’ designating their gender on the ID cards and forms) so as to enable them to access the services of state social welfare departments and financial support programs.

[…] Whilst the English speaking elites have hailed the decision about the Hijras as some great civil right victory, freethinker elaborates what does it means for the LGBT community of Pakistan, for it means nothing. It has only increased dangers for us. A genuine civil rights decision is what Indian High Court has taken. Whats happening in Pakistan is “rotten radicalism” which exists only in minds and it changes nothing and only helps establish reaction.

One of the problems with the ruling, it seems, is that it positions hijras as the problem – and not the entrenched ‘norms’ of society, which seem likely to be further reinforced.

When [the hijra] are seen as another sex category, the gendered body politic of the society comes to regulate and control them as well, their bodies becoming ‘sexed’ and providing the basis of a sex role, a body ideal, and a clothing distinction that applies to their sex. Much more likely is a medicalized view that ‘pathologizes’ their condition as defective maleness or femaleness (‘intersex’ as the medical classification goes), like it did in late 19th century Europe and became a part of the notorious eugenics movement. The concept of ‘intersex’ is heavily criticized by transgender activists in the US. In Iran, an adherence to this concept has led to a State-funded program of SRS operations which has both religious and scientific backing. The rationale behind these potentially life-threatening operations is the ‘integration’ of their ‘hijra’ into the society, but that does not necessarily mean a better life […]

(In her recent blog post Transsexual-Intersex, Sophia Siedlberg defines intersex as “a medical label that has traditionally been applied to people with a number of conditions that are diagnosable at birth. While diagnostic tests are not always carried out at birth and some escape the horrors of these terms during childhood. The traditional view has been simply that it is visible at birth.”)

As Sherryx points out, the ruling raises more questions than it answers:

What is going to constitute ‘the Third sex’? And what happens to those who do not qualify for this category? What about those ‘gender-confused’ people who do not want to be identified as ‘Third sex’, preferring instead to be identified as ‘male’ or ‘female’?

But perhaps the most crucial question here is not directly concerned with either identity politics or gender theory; it is simply this:

Does discrimination go away after formal barriers to progress have been removed, or does it merely become invisible and more difficult to fight?

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Acknowledgements:

Curtsey to Justus of the TGEU listserv for the heads up

Image by Kabir Orlowski from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

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Cross-posted at Questioning Transphobia and The F-Word

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