Inside Pakistan's first retirement home for third-gender people


Pakistan's "third-gender" people, or khawaja sehras as they call themselves, are often rejected by their families and have no-one to look after them in old age. But at last a member of the community has opened a retirement home, reports the BBC's Mobeen Azhar, providing dignity for residents in their final years.

In the shadow of the grand Bahadshai Mosque in Lahore is the Diamond Market district. You can't buy diamonds there, but you can pay for sex and you can watch khawaja sehras dance. For a fee of course. The area has long been home to Pakistan's social misfits: sex workers and the third gender. Here, youth is currency. Older sex workers and third-gender people charge less for their services, and in old age many of them find it hard to make a living.

Twenty-five years ago, Ashee Butt, or Guru Ashee as she is affectionately known, was a fixture on the Lahore party scene. She had many lovers and could be seen dancing and singing at weddings and private parties across the city. She even starred in a Lollywood film, as Lahore's movie industry is known.

But things changed as she got older. Today, she shares a bed with her cat, Chanda (Moon), and talks affectionately about the past.

"In those days there was a party every night. I would get paid as much money as I asked for, just for dancing. But the scene has changed," she says. "I can still make good money but I need to take my younger dance students with me. They perform, because I get tired."

Ashee is getting older and Pakistan has also changed. Since the 1990s the nation has moved towards a more conservative reading of Islam, meaning fewer parties and fewer places for Ashee to perform.

Image caption,
Guru Ashee, raising money for the retirement home

While gay and transgender identities are relatively new in Pakistan, khawaja-sehra or third-gender people - who often identify as neither male nor female - have always had a unique and specific status. During the Mughal era, before Pakistan's creation, they were advisers to the royal court. Today, many people still believe khawaja sehras have the power to bless a new marriage or the birth of a child. Their presence is thought to bring good luck. Discrimination is widespread, though. The majority of khawaja sehras make a living by begging or dancing, and from sex work.

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Most of Pakistan's estimated half a million khawaja sehras accept that they will be rejected by their families. But this can have dire consequences in the long run, because in Pakistan children are expected to look after their parents in old age. So with no children and no family support, older third-gender people may be left without care.

Instead, the community has developed what is known as the "guru-chelah" system. The "guru" - an older third-gender person - informally adopts a "chelah", a younger third-gender person. But in many instances the system breaks down, and older members of the community are left without anyone to rely on.

There was a specific moment when Ashee Butt became sharply aware of the problem.

"Years ago, a man ran up to me and said: 'One of your people has died and has been lying in the mortuary for a week. There's been no funeral because no one wants the body. There is no family.' It was so painful, I couldn't bear it," she says. "I ended up arranging the funeral. That's how I got the idea for the retirement home."

Image caption,
Madhu has been a sex worker for most of her life

Ashee's retirement home has been eight years in the making. It opened in February this year and provides accommodation, medication, food, entertainment and a running machine for 40 older third-gender people. It's part of a bigger project that Ashee hopes will eventually incorporate a medical centre and additional housing. To begin with, Ashee paid for it using money she had saved during her career as a dancer. More recently, the retirement home has attained formal charitable status and receives donations from around the world. Ashee has appeared on national television to raise awareness of discrimination and champion older third-gender people.

The home also provides respite care. Madhu is in her 50s and has been a sex worker for most of her life. She travels to the retirement home a few times a week for a night off from her job. At the home, she'll play Ludo, eat and talk to other members of the community.

As she gets older, she is struggling to make ends meet.

"I used to charge from 500 to a 1,000 rupees ($3 - $7) a time," she says. "Now I just get the punters with 100 rupees. They know I'm past it and will do anything. I get three or four clients a day. That's barely enough money to pay the rent. When you're over 50, all you can really do is beg in the name of Allah."

Madhu was beaten by her brothers when she first came out as third-gender and has faced ridicule from her family. She has some contact with her mother, but has never explained how she makes a living. "Mum thinks I dance at functions," she says. "I haven't told her about the other work. I'm ashamed. I could never tell her."

Khuram is a third-gender person who has been presenting as a man, complete with prayer cap and beard for the last five years. Before that he used the name Saima, and wore women's clothes, but had to give up his third-gender identity to gain his family's acceptance.

He has even destroyed his personal archive of photographs for fear that someone might "send a picture of Saima to my family on WhatsApp".

He now splits his time between relaxing at the retirement home and making clothes for other third-gender people - clothes that he no longer allows himself to wear.

"I miss having long hair and walking around like a lady," Khuram says. "I still have the eyebrows and pierced ears but unfortunately I can't live like that any more. You've got to understand that we don't have that kind of freedom here. In Pakistan there are a lot of restrictions about how you live."

Khuram's decision to conform came in 2013, when he found out he was HIV-positive. Third-gender people are 50 times more likely to be living with HIV than someone from the general population in Pakistan - it's believed almost 5% of the community are HIV-positive.

This brings with it additional stigma. "I couldn't go to the hospital in ladies' clothes. I would have been even more ashamed," Khuram says. He is resigned to the idea that his HIV status is the result of following the "wrong path", an idea propagated by conservative sections of Pakistani society.

"Whatever I did back then, I hope Allah will forgive. You can't live a good life if you upset your parents," he says. "The desire for love is always there. Saima still comes out of me from time to time, in a look or my attitude. But I want to make my family happy so I have suppressed my desires. Today I am Khuram."

Ashee's retirement home allows Khuram, Madhu and others like them to spend time together in a private space where they are accepted. Food and shelter are the starting point but the fact that older third-gender people can be themselves and feel valued is truly revolutionary.

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