Across Pakistan, where many follow a strict interpretation of Islam and extremists carry out near-daily attacks, cross-dressers face the dangers of balancing two identities. Some left their villages for the anonymity of a big city, fearing the reactions of their families. They still conceal their identity from neighbors and co-workers. In Punjabi they are known as “hijra”, transgender, eunuchs or intersex. But not all of the men identify as such. Waseem Akram, who is profiled in Muheisen’s essay, simply identifies as an occasional cross-dresser who takes up the activity as a means to earn more money.
“I am not transgendered. I am a man who simply enjoys dancing and needs money to have a better life, and being a woman is the way,” Akram, 27, told the Associated Press in Rawalpindi, just outside of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.
“Being a dancer at weddings, parties and private events … helps me earn much more money than working in a shop,” Akram said. He works as a cellphone accessories seller by day, but by night he stands before a mirror, shaving away his beard and picking through mascara and rouge to become Rani, a female wedding party dancer. He dresses up and dances while men shower him with rupees, and like many other transgender or cross-dressing men, he lives among a group men pursuing a similar lifestyle, writes Muheisen.
The dichotomy of being tolerated but at arm’s length still persists in Pakistan and much of South Asian society. Stepping out as a cross-dresser or as transgender has meant facing open harassment on the street despite the centuries-long history of hijra already existing and a 2009 ruling that recognizes them as “third gender.” Conversely, at dinner parties and grand celebrations, where men and women are often separated, men are often accompanied by cross-dressers, where they are more openly accepted or tolerated. In the streets, transgender men are often asked to bless celebrations like new births and marriages, yet transgender and cross-dressing men are often seen begging for money.