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Oscar attention puts Pakistan’s transgender community under the spotlight

Acclaimed Pakistani film ‘Joyland,’ depicting a hidden romance, has drawn sharp conservative criticism

A cyclist rides past a promotional poster for the Pakistan-produced movie “Joyland” outside a cinema in Lahore on Nov. 16. (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — For generations, they have been a familiar sight in Pakistan’s urban landscape — tall figures in alluring costumes and makeup, selling flowers on street corners or reaching out manicured hands for a few rupees. They are often hired to perform dances at festivals, clubs and all-male parties.

But although transgender people, known in Urdu as “khwaja sira” or “third gender,” have inhabited this South Asian region since the era of Mogul dynasties and British colonial rule, they have remained at the margins of this conservative society, legally recognized and protected as a minority but subject to discrimination and sometimes physical attack.

Suddenly, however, they have been thrust into the center of Pakistan’s highly charged politics.

This month, a groundbreaking Pakistani film called “Joyland,” which sympathetically portrays a romantic relationship between an unhappy married man and a transgender woman, was submitted as Pakistan’s first-ever entry in the Academy Awards after winning a prize at the Cannes Film Festival and international attention for its young creator and director, Saim Sadiq.

Just as “Joyland” was scheduled for release in Pakistani cinemas, though, a bombshell dropped. Several influential religious groups demanded that the film be banned, charging that it promoted homosexuality and spread decadent foreign values. A senator from the highly orthodox Jamaat-e-Islami party denounced it as containing “objectionable material.”

The board of censors at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting originally approved the film’s release, then banned it from being shown in many areas of the country. Now that decision has itself been reversed, and the movie has been approved for release in most regions. The only theater in the capital that had advertised the film abruptly canceled all showings for a week.

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At a rally earlier this month outside the National Press Club in Islamabad, about 100 members of Jamaat-e-Islami’s student movement chanted slogans against “foreign conspiracies.” Muhammad Arif, 22, told a reporter that such movies are made “with an aim to promote sin in our society. It is a conspiracy of foreign powers to weaken us morally.”

Khalis Saeed, 52, an engineer who had been shopping at a nearby market, came over and joined the protest, saying it was his duty as a Muslim. As a nation, he said, “we need a strong economy and defense, but we also need a strong moral character. Homosexuality is not permitted in Islam, and such films create unrest and weaken the values of Muslim youth.”

Leaders of Pakistan’s well-organized transgender community quickly shot back, holding rallies in several cities including Karachi, a sprawling seaside metropolis that is home to an estimated 20,000 transgender people. They noted that the ban on “Joyland” coincided with international celebrations of Transgender Remembrance Day — and with news of the mass killing at an LGBTQ club in Colorado.

“We are real people, and we deserve to be treated like human beings, not just like someone you hire to dance in your living room or give money on the streets,” said Bindiya Rana, who heads an advocacy group in Karachi called the Gender Interactive Alliance. “Some people say we are bringing bad foreign influences into the society, but we have been here for a long time. They are just scared because we stand up for our rights.”

There are no sex scenes or kisses in “Joyland.” Performances of pulsing, sensual dance routines are shown, but even brief embraces are blurred, in keeping with Pakistan’s moral norms as well as government regulations. It is low-key and slow-paced, with none of the high-decibel shootouts, evil characters or passionate fantasies of popular Pakistani films.

But the film is disturbing in a more subtle and subversive way. Set in a drab, claustrophobic, family compound in Lahore, crammed with noisy children and nosy relatives, it is instantly recognizable to Pakistani audiences. Its main character, frustrated at work and home, exudes a familiar, quiet desperation. The soundtrack is melancholy and the lighting dim.

As the man is drawn closer to his new boss, a transgender dancer and stage manager, they share moments of confusion, guilt, sorrow and tenderness — mostly unspoken. When the film reaches its tragic denouement, there are no recriminations or fights, only a sense of sadness and impossible longing that challenges long-held stereotypes and taboos in Pakistani society.

“It’s not what audiences in Pakistan are used to seeing. They want entertainment and escape. This is a good film, but it is very … different,” said a college student named Moises, one of a handful of people who came to see “Joyland” last week in a near-empty theater in Rawalpindi city, the only one then offering it in the capital region.

But by Wednesday, officials had partially removed the ban, allowing the film to be shown in many areas of the country. When “Joyland” reopened in the upscale Centaurus shopping mall in the capital, the seats were packed, and the audience response was largely positive.

“It’s a lovely movie, so close to reality,” said Hamid Ilyas, 19, a student. “The world is changing, and a single movie can’t harm our society or separate us from our values.” In many Pakistani movies, he said, transgender people are mocked or insulted. “If this one projects their role in society a bit differently, what’s the harm?” he asked.

Transgender and human rights activists said it has taken years of effort and legal battles to win protections and social services, such as separate health facilities, access to public jobs and the right to marry. In 2012, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered the government to provide transgender people with full constitutional rights, and in 2018, Pakistan’s legislature approved a broader array of protections under the Transgender Persons Act.

But the most sensitive issues, especially the right of transgender people to marry and declare their sex, have remained unresolved. Many have retreated to the mystical culture of Sufi Muslim shrines and beliefs, asserting that their gender is a matter of spiritual conviction. But Muslim clerics and authorities here refuse to accept that argument.

“These people are creatures of God who should have due rights,” said Qibla Ayaz, the director of Pakistan’s Council on Islamic Ideology, “but they cannot be allowed to declare a self-perceived option” that they are from one sex if they were assigned another at birth. “They need to be examined by a doctor to make that determination before being issued any official identification.”

In an interview several weeks ago with a Pakistani newspaper, Sadiq said he had no concerns about his film causing controversy, describing it as “not sensational in any way.” While noting that transgender people are often ridiculed and impersonated for laughs in Pakistan, he added, “maybe it’s time for people to grow up” and accept a film that portrays one with “sensitivity” and respect.

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“Instead of being a source of pride, ‘Joyland’ is to be sacrificed at the altar of bigotry and hypocrisy,” the editors of the Dawn newspaper charged, just before the ban was lifted. Rather than “kowtowing” to religious pressure groups, they said, Pakistani authorities should get “on the right side of history,” allowing the nation’s talents to flow and its citizens a rare chance to rejoice.

Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.