Pakistani media's exotification of the third-gender
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
"Khawaja sara ki dua aur bad-dua ka bohat asar hota hai" If you live in Pakistan, you've probably heard this phrase before. It is generally a justification for giving trans-folks some loose change/donations so their mystical prayers will make our problems go away. But it begs the question, are Khawaja Sara only worthy of our help if they can magically help us due to their different gender? Is this not the very pinnacle of exotification of something they never chose to be a part of? When I say exotification, I'm generally referring to the process of reducing a group of people to superficial characteristics and stereotypes, while simultaneously othering them, and this is something we see on a daily basis. There aren't those many media examples of empowering narratives for transgender people. Rather, majority of the times they are depicted as either victims or laughing stocks.
To give a popular example, observe the movie, Bol. In this movie, Saifi, an intersex Pakistani, grows up being hated by everyone. He tries to paint trucks for a living before he is harassed to the point that he can't work anymore. It's hinted that he will eventually resort to dancing and prostitution so his religious father smothers & kills him in his sleep.
These kind of media depictions of transgender folk are very common in Pakistani media. The debate regarding whether this is a reality first and a media portrayal second, or whether this media narrative actually fed into how we see the reality of transgender people in Pakistan, is quite ambiguous. Perhaps it isn't one or the other, but both.
However, when they aren't being portrayed as helpless victims, they are included in talk shows and dramas to serve purely as comedic devices. In fact, in a study conducted on the portrayal of Khawaja Saras in Pakistani television shows, it was found that 56.9% of the time, they're included solely for humorous jabs and laughing-gag purposes (I have linked this study at the end). Unfortunately, print-media is no different in its treatment of the third gender. To illustrate the sheer amount of stereotypical misgendering present in the news, observe the fact that Pakistani newspapers often call Trans folks "Eunuchs". The precise definition of Eunuch is a man who has been castrated (in historical times so that he could guard the oriental courts and harems without any threat of temptation). To refer to intersex & trans people as Eunuchs is downright derogatory, but also a norm in Pakistani news articles. Observe the following four headlines from leading news agencies such as Dawn, Express Tribune & The Nation (all linked at the end):
As demonstrated above, when "Eunuchs" are not being linked to criminal activities, they are associated with begging, prostitution, and vulgarity. Truthfully, these articles represent the general mindset that Pakistanis possess in regards to Trans folks. In fact, this mindset is so heavily inculcated that it's not so surprising when the prime-minister of the country calls his political opponent Bilawal Bhutto "Sahiba", feeding into the locker-room talks of many Pakistanis dwelling on Bilawal's gender while using terms like "Khusra" against him.
In addition, Khawaja Saras have been so heavily put into a box that when they try to break out of it, it is seen as controversial. Notice the following news article:
On surface level, the headline may seem harmless. But the use of the word "also" along with the derogatory term "Eunuch" could connotate that the political arena isn't welcoming of Khawaja saras. In fact, the article starts out by saying "Eunuchs also succumb to the temptation of getting into power, as two prominent members of their community have filed nomination forms for PS-115 and 130 Sindh." If this isn't a classic example of Othering, then what is? In an ideal world, transgender people would be treated as equals and not dumped to the outskirts of society. However, Pakistani media shows that this is far from reality as it directly feeds into those very narratives that it's supposedly trying to shed light on. Perhaps, it's time for that to change. Links: Strange world: Eunuch arrested for forcibly castrating man | The Express Tribune
'Punish' the eunuchs, because they are 'vulgar' | The Express Tribune Pakistans eunuchs face life of begging, prostitution - DAWN.COM Criminal activities of eunuchs on the rise (nation.com.pk) Two eunuchs also join electoral race (nation.com.pk) (PDF) PORTRAYAL OF EUNUCHS IN PAKISTANI ENTERTAINMENT TELEVISION CHANNELS AQSA IRAM SHAHZADI (researchgate.net)
Signing off, Ali Roman Nawaz.