Transgender in Pakistan: Maya, the woman who almost broke free

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Maya and Mehek
Image caption,
Maya and Mehek forged a friendship through their shared gender identities

In early 2019, Maya was on the run - but happy.

She was from Nowshera, northern Pakistan, where society is conservative and tolerance for non-conformity runs thin. And Maya didn't conform. She was transgender, born male but identifying and living as woman.

She had escaped abuse at home three times, running far away each time. She'd found happiness and a new community, but then took the chance of moving closer to her family home in Peshawar.

"I wish we had known better," says her childhood friend Mehek Khan.

Because Maya's family tracked her down and within a month of her move, she was dead.

Police suspect her brother and uncle killed her, but they have denied any involvement.

Rights activists allege the police have left many loopholes in the case, meaning justice may never be reached for Maya, as for so many of Pakistan's murdered transgender women.

'We were drawn to each other'

In Maya's home state of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, transgender women tend to identify as being a third gender - they often refer to themselves as "she-males".

Image caption,
Life in rural Nowshera was unforgiving for two young trans women

A series of court rulings since 2009 have recognised a third gender in law, but implementation is problematic. Socially, transgender individuals continue to be treated as lesser beings, having no right to claim privacy or personal dignity, or even safety.

Maya's story highlights the dark side of these realities.

"We were drawn to each other right from the start," says Mehek. "It may be because we were becoming aware of our common gender."

Maya and Mehek grew up across the road from each other in the rural outskirts of Nowshera. Both were born male, but always felt female, says Mehek. She would sometimes put on a dupatta (a head scarf) or paint her nails.

Mehek's father and uncle considered her a disgrace.

"They would often beat me up, lock me in a room... but I couldn't stop repeating it," Mehek says. Maya faced the same treatment from her male relatives when she experimented with dressing as a woman.

Image caption,
Mehek escaped her home first

Things became harder as they approached their teens, says Mehek, when "she-males start feeling they are not what people think they are".

"When that happens, life with the family becomes increasingly difficult, and you wait for an opportunity to step out."

The two fantasised for years about running away and becoming great dancers, and then, in 2016, Mehek finally managed to do so. She fled to Peshawar, where a boyfriend found her work at a garment factory.

It was a year before she heard from Maya, who called her saying she was planning to escape.

"I was so happy I cried," says Mehek.

Image caption,
A guru's home provides safety, community and access to employment for isolated trans women

Maya and Mehek moved together to Kamra, in the northern highlands of Punjab province, and into the care of a guru.

Pushed to the fringes of society, transgender women in Pakistan tend to cluster in small communities organised around an older trans woman, a guru, who acts as their guardian and protector in exchange for a cut of their earnings.

The guru will also teach them how to dress and perform, so they have access to one of the few sources of income available for them - as wedding dancers.

Betrayed and dragged home

The year the two spent fulfilling their dream of dancing "was the best year of our lives", says Mehek.

Image caption,
Mehek said the months they lived with Naina (left) were the happiest of their lives

Having transgender dancers at weddings is not only a cheaper alternative but also spares the hosts the censure they would expect from community elders if they invited cisgender women. For dancers, it's a way of avoiding having to beg, or enter sex work.

"We went all over Pothowar region, dancing at weddings and other parties, and making more money than we had seen before."

But it was a brief period of happiness - they were both ultimately betrayed by boyfriends, who tricked them into putting themselves in the path of their families. Both were dragged back home.

Both women had their hair cropped and, Mehek says, were tortured. Maya was badly beaten, she says, and her brother chained her to a bed in the basement of their house for several days.

Undeterred, in March, they both escaped again, eventually ending up in Peshawar, where the trend for "Tommy dancers" - transwomen dancers with a less feminine look - meant they could still get wedding work, despite their shorn heads.

Naina Khan became their new guru. She described how Maya seemed to be settling well in Peshawar.

"She was quite relaxed, and bold, almost over-confident," she says.

But then on Saturday, "the doorbell rang and an old acquaintance walked in, holding a phone in his hand", she says, sitting in the nine-room apartment where she houses nearly 20 youthful chailas, or disciples.

Image caption,
As dancers the two women finally got to fulfil their childhood dream

Maya was reclining in a cot in the lounge, she says, talking on phone. The visitor sat in another cot, and kept looking at his phone, sometimes stealing a glance at Maya.

"I now suspect he had Maya's picture in his phone and wanted to confirm her presence," Naina says.

The visitor left abruptly. Minutes later the bell rang again, and three men walked in.

"I saw Maya rush in. She quickly removed her earrings and nose-pin, turned off her phone, put everything in a purse and gave it to me. She was very frightened. She said her brother and uncle had come to get her."

A tall young man barged into the room, walked up to Maya and hit her.

Naina and her chailas rushed in. The man pulled out a gun but Naina refused to be intimidated and, with the help of the others, was able to push all three men out of the apartment.

Image caption,
Naina suspects the family had sent someone to confirm Maya was living at the house

But within half-an-hour, a police party arrived and the officer ordered Maya to go with him. When Naina intervened, he said Maya had stolen gold from her home.

Left with no option, Naina and her chailas decided they would accompany them to the nearby police station.

Over the next couple of hours, they raised a ruckus, demanding to know why Maya was there since she didn't want to go home. She was an adult, they said, and couldn't be forced to do anything she didn't want.

The head of the police station assured her that they just wanted Maya to have a word with her father, who was on his way from Nowshera, and that after that, Maya would be free to go where she wanted.

Naina and her followers left for a wedding appointment, but when they went back to the police station in the early hours, Maya was not there.

A law that can clear murderers

What happened to Maya that night is not clear, and may never be.

A top police officer of Peshawar city, Zahoor Afridi, told the BBC that Maya had given her consent to leave with her father, uncle and other male relatives. But an undertaking shown to BBC by the Hashtnagri police is written on a plain paper and signed only by her father and uncle, not Maya.

Image caption,
Taimur Kamal says a loophole could allow the killers to pay off Maya's family

Investigations by Nowshera police showed that the car carrying Maya had stopped briefly at a petrol station owned by her uncle. There, Maya was moved to the car in which her uncle and brother were travelling. The rest of the family was asked to proceed home.

The next morning Maya was found dead, lying in a pool of blood in the woods near Nowshera.

Nearly a dozen people have been arrested so far, including Maya's father, her brother, uncle and other members of the extended family. In statements to court, they all denied having killed Maya. All have been released on bail.

Taimur Kamal, a transgender rights activist, says the circumstantial evidence is strong, but the police are "reluctant to include some relevant clauses in the case that will make it hard for the offenders to avoid punishment".

For years in Pakistan, the heirs of a murdered person had the right to pardon the killers in exchange for blood money, an ancient Arab custom.

However, in 2016, in order to curb so-called honour killings - and letting families get away with murder and walk away with money - parliament abolished this right in all cases classified as "honour crimes".

"Maya's is clearly an honour killing," says Taimur Kamal. "But the police haven't included the honour clause in the case, which leaves the door open for Maya's mother or sister to pardon her killers."

A body unclaimed but paid for

Peshawar-based transgender rights group Transaction says at least 70 trans women have been murdered in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province alone since 2015, when the group started keeping data on crimes against the community.

Among the more recent cases, that of a Peshawar trans woman, Nazo, stands out. She was killed by two friends in July last year. They hacked her body into pieces, stuffed it in plastic bags and were carrying it for disposal when police caught them.

Nazo's family considered it below their dignity to accept her body, so it was buried in a police graveyard in Peshawar. But they did feel they owned Nazo when they were offered blood money by the killers in return for filing a pardon in court.

The two men were acquitted on the basis of that pardon two months ago.

More recently, a trans woman from Mardan was allegedly killed by her family. Though pictures of her dead body were circulated by rights activists on social media, no-one filed a murder case with the police, nor did the police bother to act on the tip.

Image caption,
Naina says she is reminded of Maya constantly

According to rights activists, a majority of these murders are committed by angry lovers. Murders by family members are rare, mainly because most trans-women leave their homes at an early age and lose all contact with their relatives.

The only "relatives" these trans women are left with are members of the community where they live. And that is where they are missed the most when they are gone.

Naina, Maya's former guru, says she is reminded of her every time she opens her safe.

"I see her purse, and start crying. It's all there; some money, her phone, her national ID, her jewellery. She was so young. You can't look at a young person and imagine death."

For Mehek, Maya's memories run even deeper.

"Naina is kind and protective, and our place is bustling with friendly she-males. But my heart continues to be in pain. I've lost my best friend and no-one will ever replace her," she says.

Media caption,

Creating jobs for India’s transgender community