PAK­ISTAN RETIREMENT HOME

Safe refuge for the coun­try’s ag­ing third gen­der pop­u­la­tion

Attitude - - This issue -

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”

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