It is early morning when Shabo rises to feed her pigeons. She bought a flock of 20 when she moved into her new apartment, one room on a rooftop with a small storage unit that could accommodate them. “They give me peace”, she says, “I love how they fly away, but always return”. Shabo, is a 35 years old Hijra once known as Hullam Shabir who comes from a middle class family in Lahore. In the culture of South Asia, hijra are physiological males who adopt feminine gender identity, women’s clothing and other feminine gender roles.
Shabo is a guru, a leader and mentor of younger hijra. At the moment she only has one adept, Pashtuni, the son of a wealthy family from Islamabad, who after being rejected has fled the city and landed in Hira Mandi, the infamous red light district of Lahore where Shabo has been living for more than a decade.
Pashtuni is training hard. His appearance is not as feminine and elegant as the several friends of his guru who frequently visit their home. Standing at 6 feet with the shape of a body builder and thick facial hair that needs to be shaved at least twice a day, he compensates with a vibrant and fun personality. He has a boyfriend, a young man from Lahore who lives with them and whose only activity seems to be smoking hashish and giving Pashtuni a hard time engaging in endless fights.
Life at the house is very repetitive. The focal point of their day is preparing for what they call a “function”, a social event, usually a wedding, where these men are hired to entertain other men in a society where different genders don’t mix. Hijra train all their lives to dance and perform at these events. Their hopes are to make a living as entertainers. When one graduates training and gets accepted by their society, his dancing and singing skills are as refined as his manners and style.
Weddings and other events are scars and competition is very high. Most men rely on prostitution in order to make a living. Shabo has a few boyfriends who visit him regularly. “I don’t go with every man. I choose my partners very well. I try to teach this to my students but they’re young and inpatient”. When asked if they at least are conscious of sexually transmitted disease he adds, “I tell them about AIDS and give them condoms, but I am sure they rarely use them”. He tells me that many of their clients say they’re devoted Muslims and struggle with the idea of using contraceptives.
Homosexuality is illegal in Pakistan and gay rights are close to non-existent. Due to the religious intolerance towards such acts, the public tends to oppose homosexuality and other forms of alternative sexual orientation. Nevertheless Shabo and her students still walk the streets of Hira Mandi, go shopping and have conversations with curious men on the streets and at cafes.