CNN Photos

Transgender life in Pakistan

Photographer Guy Calaf discovered Pakistan’s transgender community, or hijras, while working on an assignment about heroin addiction in Punjab.

“While photographing addicts, I would see hijras walking the streets, beautifully dressed, with their seductiveness and their intense eyes and I started spending some time with them,” he says.

After the addiction story wrapped up, he decided to return to Pakistan and focus on its transgender population.

Hijra is an Urdu word with an Arabic origin meaning “leaving one’s tribe.” Calaf says it defines physiological males who have female gender identities.

The hijras usually live together, as they tend to be marginalized by their families and the rest of society. Calaf describes the homes he visited as very basic, with minimal furniture and just a few rooms, some of which were completely bare.

Boyfriends, partners and other visitors would come and go. It wasn’t unusual for many men to come visit to drink tea, smoke cigarettes and chat.

“The TV would be always playing Indian music videos or a Bollywood movie,” Calaf says. “Always lots of dancing, as loud as it could be.”

A “guru” usually leads the household and is responsible for teaching younger hijras.  The training covers singing, dancing, and living as a third sex in Pakistan. Many of them earn a living as entertainers.

The hijras are often sought to perform at weddings, where men and women hold largely separate celebrations.  Since the hijras are physiologically men, they are allowed to entertain and mingle with the men.

The weddings are usually large affairs with hundreds of guests.  At the events Calaf witnessed, large groups of men would surround the hijras as soon as they arrived.  Music was almost always playing, and they would immediately begin dancing.

More formal performances, often involving three or more dancers working in sync, take place on a stage. Cash is thrown into the air by guests and collected by the hijras when they finish.

“It’s really what they would like to do as a living, “Calaf says.  “(They see it as) the best way for them to profit, and make a living as legit entertainers.”

But the work is limited as not all families are willing to hire them, and the pay is largely based on tips.  It’s hard to earn enough money to get by.

“It’s not uncommon to see (them) begging on the streets, at traffic lights, doing whatever they can to survive,” Calaf says.

Some admitted to him that they have traded sex for money, but most prefer to have a long-term partner or “boyfriend” who takes care of them.  They say that outright prostitution brings too high a risk of beatings and abuse.

Others are mistresses to married men or have regular acquaintances who visit them during business trips. Although Calaf wouldn’t necessarily call visiting hijras common practice, they have an established presence in South Asia.

“As Pakistan is a very strong patriarchal society where genders are segregated in most aspects of life, it is not unforeseeable to think of hijras as a natural presence in society,” he says.

- Cody McCloy, CNN

View photos of a struggling transgender musician in New York.