Dancing at the Edges of Section 377:
Hijraism and Colonial Legislation in Contemporary Pakistan
Hijras, the South Asian community of transgender women, were subject to criminalization by nineteenth century colonial laws. The Criminal Tribes Act (1871) targeted their feminine public appearances and long tradition of performance at Hindu and Sufi festivals, fairs, celebratory gatherings and badhai, the giving of fertility blessings births and weddings (hijras believed to grant auspicious prayers or curses), as a means to police and prohibit sexual ‘intercourse against the order of nature’ as defined in Section 377 (1860). Stripped of its cultural and religious significance, hijraism was re-visioned in public discourse to signify deviant sexuality and outlawed. Yet hijraism proved an unstable signifier; impossible to police and dislocate from culturally embedded knowledge, lending to repeal of CTA in 1910. In contemporary Pakistan, though Section 377 still exists, hijras/khwajasaras have recently been awarded legitimate citizenship identities (2009). I explore how recent media and legal attention that accompanied these reforms, reasserts the legacies of the colonial past; extending the anti-performance imperatives, to police ‘unnatural’ bodies and ‘unnatural’ sexuality in favor of making ‘good’ Pakistani citizens. In turn, I explore how khwajasaras are drawing upon their traditional performance repertoire to redress their marginalization beyond the microscopic gaze of Section 377, to re situate themselves in cultural space.
Claire Pamment is a postdoctoral fellow at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. She is a performance practitioner and scholar, working in South Asian theater and performance, with a focus on the popular, comedic, burlesque and queer in Pakistan. Her Ph.D. thesis from Royal Central School of Speech and Drama explored comic performance in Pakistan with a focus on the bhand tradition through Sufi wise fools, and transformations in contemporary culture. Her book ‘Comic Performance in Pakistan: The Bhand’ is forthcoming from Palgrave. Over the last two years, with the support of a Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant, she has been working on the performance culture of the Pakistani transgender community of khwajasaras (hijras). During her fellowship at Yale she will further this research by investigating how Sufism informs khwajasara identity and history in Pakistan, and shapes performance practices that enable this transgender community to negotiate a variety of restrictive social scripts.