There was a time when Mohammed Zafar Iqbal used to cash in on his beautiful face and graceful moves, dancing bedecked in midnight blue veils and dresses for clients who sought his perceived closeness to God.
- A jealous admirer threw acid in Zafars face seven eyars ago
- Many hijras end up as prostitutes
- Zafar says the only thing that relieves the anguish of his past is to dance
- Eunuchs are on the bottom rungs of Pakistans social ladder
But like most of Pakistan's eunuch and transsexual community -- mocked, pitied and shunned by society -- his life has mostly been marred by hardship and suffering, peaking seven years ago when he was brutally attacked.
AdvertisementA jealous admirer, furious at being spurned by a hijra, as eunuchs are know in Pakistan, threw acid in his face. That man, Shabir, was once his best friend.
"I loved him like a brother. But one day he told me he was in love with me. He wanted me for himself alone," he said.
"Nobody respects you. For them, we're just here for sex. Men harass us more than they do girls," he tells AFP in his reedy, androgynous voice.
Zafar, 22, says the only thing that relieves the anguish of his past is to dance. Dressed in a light brown tunic he pirouettes and sways to Indian music in a dormitory at the Acid Survivors' Foundation in the capital Islamabad.
His long, straight, fine hair and a pair of sunglasses conceal his blind eyes and his skin is pulled tight across his disfigured face.
A photo of a 15-year-old Zafar is testimony to his former good looks, showing the image of a beautiful woman wearing make-up and an embroidered dress with a deep blue veil.
In Zafar's arms is a small boy, the son of a local policeman. He had been invited to dance at his birthday.
Hijras were historically castrated at birth and granted a favoured status in the court of the Indian subcontinent's Mughal empire, but now Pakistan's eunuch community includes hermaphrodites, transsexuals, transvestites and homosexuals.
Eunuchs were traditionally paid to help celebrate the birth of a son, or to dance at weddings.
Because of their perceived misfortune at having being born between two genders, the traditional belief in Pakistan is that God will be more inclined to listen to their prayers.
But this leaves the eunuchs with little other choice but to beg on the streets for pennies, and many end up as prostitutes.
In Muslim Pakistan, where sexual relations outside marriage are taboo and homosexuality is illegal, eunuchs are also treated as sex objects and often become the victims of violent assault.
"Every eunuch does prostitution", said Reshma, 22, who sells sex for 200 rupees (2.50 dollars) a time.
"This is hard, but I earn more doing this than if I had a normal job," he added, looking for clients on Rawalpindi's Benazir Bhutto Avenue in a bright orange tunic at one in the morning.
A prostitute since the age of eight, he says he is raped every day but as the only person in his family with an income he has no choice.
Now, in a move toward granting the country's estimated 500,000 eunuchs rights, Pakistan's top judge has ordered the government to recognise them as a distinct gender -- although how it will be implemented remains to be seen.
In neighbouring India, eunuchs and transsexuals won a long-standing campaign last year to be listed as "others" -- distinct from males and females -- on electoral rolls and voter identity cards.
"It's good for eunuchs because no one respects them," said Almas Bobby, a spokesman for Pakistan's eunuch community.
"Lots of bad guys go to eunuchs and rape them for satisfaction, for fun, they burn them with cigarettes," he told AFP.
The 45-year-old Bobby, celebrated in the city of Rawalpindi for the feminine grace of his dancing, has helped mobilise his fellow eunuchs in recent years to campaign for their rights.
Demonstrations against rape and extortion by the police have drawn a lot of attention in the Pakistani press.
Lawyer Mohammad Aslam Khaki filed the petition for eunuchs' rights at the Supreme Court, which last month ordered a third gender column on national identity cards.
The judge also demanded more help for eunuchs in getting their share under inheritance laws as well as better protection from police harassment.
Rejected by their mortified families when they hit their teens, eunuchs end up living together in communities led by a guru who acts as guide and counsellor -- but most often as a pimp.
"In our society, the access to girls is very limited outside marriage, there is no privacy. This feeds prostitution," Khaki said. "All of them are more or less linked to the prostitution business."
But despite all the campaigning, there is little hope among the hijras that life will soon change. Like many eunuchs, Reshma had not heard even about the recent order from the top judge, which has yet to be implemented.
"The situation will stay the same. I don't think bureaucracy will improve things with us," he said.
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