PAKISTAN RETIREMENT HOME
Safe refuge for the country’s aging third gender population
Transgender identities are yet to take root in Pakistan. They are often seen as a “Western import” but khawaja sehras — thirdgender people — have always had a place in the Islamic republic. In fact, existence pre- dates the creation of the nation.
Third- gender people can be seen in every town and city and are believed to have the power to bless marriages and children. Now, Ashee Butt, the grand matriarch of the Lahore’s third- gender people, has established Pakistan’s first retirement home exclusively for members of the third- gender community.
I arrive in Lahore as a guest of Guru Ashee. She is cherished by her community as a human rights activist and someone who makes things happen. She lives in Heera Mundee, the diamond market district. No diamonds can be purchased but sex workers, third- gender people and just about everyone else broader society frowns upon live in the area.
Here, you can pay for a private dancer and, for a little extra cash, sex is for sale.
Tonight however, there is a private party — a family event as a young man is getting married — and Ashee will be dancing. Before we set off, she gives me some personal history.
Her life sounds like a soap opera. Now 50- something, she tells me about her “many lovers”, including one who flew her to Zurich before asking her to marry him.
Things didn’t work out so Ashee made her name as a party girl. “In those days, there was a party every night. I would get paid as much money as I asked for, just for dancing,” she says. But the business of dance and sex work in Pakistan has a shelf life. The parties have dried up and as she gets older, so have her financial options.
Ashee has put her life savings into establishing a retirement home. It’s where she will eventually live with other members of the thirdgender community. The project has been eight years in the making. It opened this summer and provides accommodation, medication and food for 40 older third- gender people.
It’s part of a bigger project that will eventually incorporate a medical centre and additional housing. Most of the residents haven’t moved in yet but they gather a few times a week to drink tea, eat, and play Ludo.
I meet Nimo at the home and she invites me back to her flat in the diamond market. She too is in her fifties, and lives with her dogs Lychee and Jack as well as her best friend Madhu who is a sex worker.
I sit stroking the dogs and chatting to Nimo as Madhu tends to a client in her bedroom. “I was born Nayem and when I
visit my family I have to present as a man,” Nimo tells me. “It’s uncomfortable but I have to do it. Even though they have seen me in lady’s clothes, they don’t like it. They ignore me.
“This way, I can be Nimo most of the time and I am Nayem when I see the family. We create our own families anyway.
“If I get sick, other third- gender people will take care of me ahead of my birth family. That tells you everything you need to know.”
Most of Pakistan’s estimated 500,000 khawaja sehras accept that they will be rejected by their families. But this has dire consequences because in Pakistan children are expected to provide care for their parents in old age. It’s a system that works flawlessly as long as everyone conforms. The moment anyone comes out as gay or third gender they could be ignored and the whole thing falls apart. That means third- gender people who have no children and are ostracised by the families they are born into can be left without provision as they get older.
Madhu appears after her client leaves. Now almost 50, she tells me she charges more “to put it in the mouth” because that is “mostly for poetry,” before collapsing on the floor in a fit of giggles. Madhu has been a sex worker since she was a teenager. She’s HIV positive — just as five per cent of the country’s thirdgender community is believed to be.
This brings additional stigma and a greater need for care in old age. But right now, Madhu can’t even think about retirement. As she gets older, she’s struggling to pay her rent. “I used to charge between 500 and 1,000 rupees (£ 2.50-£ 5) a time. Now I just get the punters with 100 rupees ( 50p). They know I’m past it and will do anything.”
Madhu was beaten by her brothers when she came out as third gender and her family remain unaware of how she makes a living.
“I’m ashamed,” she says. “I could never tell them.”
Ashee’s retirement home allows Nimo, Madhu and others like them to spend time together in a private space where they are accepted.
Food, shelter and stability are the starting point, but the fact that older third- gender people can be themselves and feel valued is what makes this so remarkable.
The documentary Our World : The Best Pakistani Transgender Retirement
Home is available on the BBC News channel and iPlayer
To donate to the retirement home, visit leetchi. com/ c/ transgenderretirement- home- pakistan
“Five per cent of the third- gender community is said to be HIV positive”