Nadeem Kashish, the president of the Shemale Association for Fundamental Rights, says that, far from acting as guardians, the gurus encourage young transgender people to take up sex work. “We must eliminate the culture of handing over transgenders to gurus in childhood,” said Kashish. “They sexually abuse them and compel them to beg on the streets.”
Known as hijras, a group including transgender people, cross-dressers and eunuchs, they have an ancient history in South Asia. They are mentioned in the pages of the Kama Sutra and served as senior courtiers to the subcontinent’s Mughal rulers in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Pakistan’s transgender population is estimated at about 500,000, many of whom survive in a precarious social niche as wedding dancers and providers of blessings in exchange for cash – often from motorists stuck at traffic lights.
In a highly conservative religious country they also suffer widespread abuse and discrimination. Last month, a two-minute video showing a group of men viciously beating a hijra was widely circulated on social media.
In May, a hijra activist called Alisha died after being shot multiple times in Peshawar. Her friends claimed hospital staff failed to give her proper emergency medical care, in part because of objections to her being treated on a female ward.
“The life of a transgender is hard,” said Kashish. “We are sexually assaulted, financially exploited and physically used.”
Their position has improved in recent years after a series of historic rulings by the supreme court, including an order that they should be recognised as intersex on their national identity cards. Previously hijras had refused to declare themselves as male or female, meaning they were denied an ID card and therefore the right to vote and stand for election.
The country’s provincial governments were also ordered to create jobs for hijras. Sindh province put a small number to work as municipal debt collectors who sing and dance outside the houses of defaulters to embarrass them into paying up.
But Kashish argues the community must also reform itself. She even calls for hijras to be banned from undergoing gender reassignment surgery, something many would like to do if they could afford it.
Her warnings about the “guru” system have not been met with universal agreement. Sheeza, a guru in Rawalpindi who goes by one name, said he provided a vital safety net for young transgender people who would otherwise be abandoned by their parents.
“I have no children so I treated them like my own kids,” he said. “When they were small and they came to my house I fed them. But now they are older I’ve told them to earn for themselves.”
Bejili, 30, and one of six hijras in Sheeza’s group, said she had no help when she was thrown out of her home. “My guru loved me more than my parents,” she said. “It is only fair that I am helping him now that he is old.”
In Islamabad, the hijra community is contributing towards the cost of a new mosque in a slum on the outskirts of the city. “We are not allowed to offer prayer in the same mosque as everyone else,” said Kashish. “Maulvis [expert in Islamic law] are not ready to lead our funeral prayers and our dead bodies are not properly buried. This new mosque will show the world that we are part of the same community.”
Kashish is hoping to stand in the next national election for one of the parliamentary seats reserved for “minorities”.
“When I’m elected I will start building homes that will provide shelter, education and health facilities to the transgenders,” Kashish said. “And I will run an awareness campaign asking parents not to hand over their child to gurus.”