Khwaja Siras and State (Dis)Belief | TQ SALON

Conversation: Difference and the State

This is the third essay in this conversation. TQ Salon is a series of conversations among scholars of South Asia. Each conversation is clustered around a motivating text. The first essay is here and the second essay is here.


TQ Salon is a series of conversations among scholars of South Asia. Each conversation is clustered around a motivating text. The first essay in this conversation is here and the second is here. See other conversations here.

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Modern forms of governance do not simply enumerate citizens; they produce them by rendering them into being through the states’ practices of categorizing identities and populations. In Seeing Like a State, James Scott has aptly observed how the state works to render the society and the population transparent and simplified so that the various state functions–conscription, taxation, quotas, even rights–can be carried out. Legibility, as Scott says, is “a central problem in statecraft.” 

In this TQ conversation, we explore the production of legibility by the Pakistani state. How does the state produce normative and marginal populations? How are minority rights, sexual rights and religious rights mediated by the state? What is the relationship between the central problem of statecraft–legibility–and disbursement of rights and justice? What might failures of the state to render certain beings legible tell us about the legibility project as well as possibilities of countering the logic of the state? 

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The relationship between social legibility, legal rights, and freedom is a complicated one. At the very least, any correlation between the three must disaggregate freedom from legal rights. Put another way, while there may be a strong relationship between social legibility and legal rights, the relationship is far less straightforward between social legibility and freedom itself. For example, in South Asia, gay men’s sexual freedom has largely occurred in dark corners where the state has not cared to look. Despite political and legal controversy concerning it in India, Section 377the colonial piece of legislation regulating “unnatural offences” still in force in both India and Pakistanis rarely prosecuted by the state (statistically speaking). Interestingly, the Indian and Pakistani states have largely been unable to imagine, or see, how ‘mere’ male-male masti equates with Section’s 377 sacred penalization of “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” And, if the state has been unwilling to fully regard penises and anuses, it has contemplated vaginas even less ably. In these social crevices then, a certain kind of space can flourish outside of the state’s harsh glare.

Many people might contest such an analysis, if only because it seems too general. And, indeed, one does need to be attuned to detail and nuance when thinking about the social legibility of various groups and identities, and how this legibility correlates with freedom(s). In fact, with respect to the group of people who are the focus of my recent research and this essay namely, Pakistani khwaja sirasthere may well indeed be a tight connection between their increasing social legibility and the increased freedoms they enjoy. Khwaja siras (still often referred to as hijras) have been visible, yet invisible, to the Pakistani state for generations. And arguably, it was only in 2009, when a legal petition concerning the social and legal treatment of khwaja siras was filed in the Supreme Court of Pakistan that the Pakistani state began to see khwaja siras and to take them into account. Before this legal petition, khwaja siras were certainly evident on public streets in all of Pakistan’s major cities. Yet they were also actively unseen. In this respect, a friend and I were recently sitting at a traffic signal near Liberty Market in Lahore when a khwaja sira approached and knocked on the window of our parked car. My friend warned me: “Don’t look at her. She will think that you will give her something.” In many ways, before 2009, the Pakistani state was able to feign a similar blindness.


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What did khwaja siras want from the state? For one, Pakistan’s khwaja sira citizens had generally faced difficulties in either obtaining Computerized National Identity Cards (CNICs) in the first instance, or obtaining CNICs that would subsequently be taken seriously (since the bureaucratic gender listed on a transgendered citizen’s CNIC would not correspond to visible gender) at polling stations and other places where CNICs are required. This presented serious problems with respect to personal livelihood and, also, the freedom of franchise. In response to this problem, the Supreme Court ordered the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) to reform the way it bureaucratically recorded gender on CNICs. Following the Supreme Court’s directives, NADRA has recently developed five gender options that people may pick from when applying for a CNIC: male, female, khwaja sira (male), khwaja sira (female), and khunsa-e-mushkil (an Arabic-derived expression which can be translated as ‘hermaphrodite’). While it remains to be seen whether this has been or will be fully implemented, gender choice on a CNIC is supposed to be completely elective, with no third-party examination or medical documentation of gender necessary.

‘Believability’ has been an important concept deployed by many in the discussion of Pakistani khwaja siras’ social and legal welfare. As the brief discussion above demonstrates, historically, the Pakistani state has (occasionally) made it difficult to use ‘unbelievable’ identity documents in the process of voting. One concern here appears to be ‘voter fraud’ accomplished via the use of ‘suspect’ identity documents. In this respect, worries about believability have joined with concerns about fraud, suspect-ness, and legibility to form a knot of cognate concerns commonly arising in contemporary discussions of the status of khwaja sira. However, the knotting of these kinds of worries has played out at more levels than just those concerning official identity documents.

Indeed, one significant concern that circulated not only within the Supreme Court when it first began holding its khwaja sira hearings back in 2009, but also after and outside these official hearings, is whether some khwaja siras are actually ‘fake’ khwaja siras. When first considering the issue of ordering new identity documents for khwaja siras, the Supreme Court instructed NADRA in November 2009 to “adopt a [bureaucratic] strategy . . . to record [unix’] exact status in the column meant for male or female after undertaking some medical tests based on hormones etc.” Why this concern with the “exact,” hormonal status of unix (a confusing term that, at one point, the Supreme Court deployed in this litigation to designate khwaja siras)? One reason appeared to be that the Court had received information “that in the name of the [khwaja siras] some male and female who . . . otherwise have no gender disorder in their bodies have adopted this status and commit crimes on account of which a bad name is brought to [khwaja siras].” While the source of this information is not clear from Supreme Court documents, the attorney who initiated this litigation at the Supreme Court, Dr. Mohammad Aslam Khaki, conveyed to me in a personal discussion his own experience of taking tea with and giving money to a teenaged “eunuch” (quoting Dr. Khaki) that used to visit Dr. Khaki’s law offices. This person was later revealed to be a “fake” when Dr. Khaki spotted him one day wearing “normal dress” (again, Dr. Khaki’s own words). Dr. Khaki also informed me that one reason that any number of people are ‘pretending’ to be khwaja sira these days is that it is possible to earn enough rupees to constitute a respectable Pakistani middle-class monthly salary while begging on the streetsat least if one is recognized as an ‘actual’ khwaja sira.


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As for the Supreme Court itself, if anyone might have thought that the Court was not genuinely concerned in November 2009 about a real problem with ‘fake khwaja siras,’ the Court repeated its concern with those “who in fact are not [khwaja sira] but by using such status are committing . . . crimes and [as a result of which] the actual [khwaja siras] are being blamed for the same” in a subsequent order issued in December 2009. Seeing, then, appears to be very difficult for the state, as it is for everyday people. Indeed, in a recent conversation about my ongoing research on khwaja siras with another friend in Karachi, this friend expressed to me that “90 percent” of khwaja siras on the streets are actually “fake” khwaja siras.

It can be tempting to diagnose some particularly Pakistani percepto-pathology here. However, another way of viewing the seemingly commonplace assertions about ‘fake’ khwaja siras is to see these assertions as simply admissions that seeingfor both state officials and ordinary individuals alikeis always fraught with shortcomings and dangers. And, indeed, how could it not be? Putting aside an alleged predilection for conspiracy theories in Pakistan, in many contextsand perhaps especially those where there is short supply of inter-personal and inter-institutional trustpeople ‘put on appearances,’ other people know this because they do it themselves, and the ‘truth of the situation’ is always the subject of some speculation and anxiety.

Returning to the themes which opened this short essay, it is worth contemplating how in Pakistan’s anxiety about ‘the truth’ of khwaja sirasor, put another way, in Pakistani social anxiety about khwaja siras’ social (il)legibilitythere may lie some kind of freedom. In this respect, a deeply ironic consequence of the Supreme Court’s intervention in 2009, and the societal discussions of gender in Pakistan which flowed from this intervention, is that everyone’s gender is now in some sense suspect. For example, a khwaja sira may ‘really’ be a mansuch as Dr. Khaki’s interlocutor (discussed above)and a man himself may ‘really’ be a khwaja sira (male). Who is to know, and how would one know it, especially when the gender listed on a CNIC is supposed to be designated according to a person’s individual election? Such uncertainty about gender has also been on full display in other Pakistani controversies pre-dating the khwaja sira litigation. For example, Maulana Abdul Aziz was infamously caught trying to escape the besieged Lal Masjid in Islamabad in 2007 while wearing a woman’s burqa. That same year, in Lahore, the husband in a heterosexual marital couple was arrested by the police in conjunction with a family dispute concerning this couple’s marriage. The wife’s family opposed this couple’s marriage and, in the ensuing family feud, it was revealed that the husband, Shumail Raj, had previously been a woman and had undergone a sex change to become a man. Photos of a very male Shumail Raj adorned many Pakistani newspapers during this controversy. Such incidents have the potential to undermine a strict gender binaryat the very least, demonstrating the reality and possibility of gender transgressionand thereby open up new gender frontiers to explore (more) freely.


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Of course, in other cases, this social anxiety concerning those that blur or cross boundaries has produced systematic targeting for those deemed as transgressors. For instance, worries about Ahmadis “posing” as Muslims have led to strict legislative demarcations of a separate non-Muslim legal identity for (Muslim-identifying) Ahmadis. These laws, and their social ramifications, have resulted in many a Muslim being compelled, at some point or other, to ‘prove’ to others that they are actually not an Ahmadi. Conversely, any effort by an Ahmadi to assert their Muslim-ness is perilously fraught with danger and, quite possibly, death. As a result, many Ahmadis (and non-Ahmadis) have fled Pakistan to live less anxious lives elsewhere. In short, anxious ambiguity about the (non)Islamic bona fides of Ahmadis have resulted in multitudinous efforts by the Pakistani state to try to see Ahmadis betterto bring them into focus, in sharp contrast with Muslimswhether on CNIC cards or elsewhere. This anxiety-driven effort to ‘see better’ has resulted in a fraught situation for the targeted.

While there are nuances to this claim, the elaboration of which space does not permit here, the social and legal situation of khwaja siras appears to be no worse than before the Pakistani state saw them and made them more legible than before. At the very least, the Pakistani state has had to give khwaja siras things which many of them wanted (e.g. CNICs, votes, jobs) but which the state had previously held back, separated from khwaja sira ‘reality’ by a mere glass transparency. But seeing has not necessarily meant believing. And believing may just lend itself to anxiety, not repose. And anxiety may or may not lead to freedom. The connections between social legibility and freedom are indeed complex.

Jeff Redding has been visiting faculty at the Shaikh Ahmad Hassan School of Law at Lahore University of Management Sciences. He is currently Associate Professor at Saint Louis University School of Law.

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