News Story

A Community on the Margins

January 17, 2014—Mashal Shah (C’14) definitely has one of the most interesting answers to the question, “What did you do on your summer vacation?” The senior government major, who is minoring in justice and peace studies, spent last summer researching the transgender population in her native Pakistan.

While it might seem like an odd choice when many of her peers were interning at think tanks or working at nonprofit organizations, for Shah the project was a perfect fit.

For years, a man worked for Shah’s family who was interested in gender performance. He would perform at weddings and festivals as a woman. And though that didn’t make him transgender, his ability to cross the gender binary piqued Shah’s curiosity.

Shah was also interested in a particular judicial order that passed in Pakistan in 2009, granting transgender people the right to use a third gender on their national identification card. This was a huge coup for the community, and Shah wanted to know more about it.

“I’ve been following the news on their community, and I was interested in finding out how they were able to push for their rights because in the past they’ve been pushed to the margins of society,” Shah said.

Through the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching, and Service’s David F. Andretta Summer Research Scholarship, Shah traveled to Pakistan to learn about the lives and challenges of the gender non-conforming population there. Her first step was to connect with people doing groundwork in the transgender community.

While in Washington, Shah met Fauzia Saeed, who at the time was a fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. Saeed also ran an NGO in Pakistan called Mehergarh and worked extensively on the issue of prostitution there. Many of the sex workers in Pakistan are transgender women.

Saeed connected Shah with a number of contacts in Pakistan. When Shah arrived in Islamabad, her first step was to meet with those individuals—leaders in the transgender community, activists, academics, and politicians—and get an understanding of the issues.

She learned that the transgender community in Pakistan, which is almost exclusively male to female, was extremely hierarchical. Shah gained access to transgender women by seeking out the community’s “gurus.”

“The gurus are the leaders, the teachers. They teach the transgenders how to live in a close-knit community. They have their own separate communities where they interact mostly with each other,” she said. “They live in little pockets around the city.”

By going to festivals, birthday parties, and performances with members of the transgender community, Shah got an insider’s view of what life was like for them. She gained their trust and as such, she was able to document their daily lives using photos and videos.

Shah says her nationality also helped her research. Because she is Pakistani—she grew up in Peshawar near the border with Afghanistan—the community she was studying gave her a warm greeting.

“I could use my Pakistani identity as leverage to enter the transgender community,” she said.

However, because Shah always had to be accompanied by a male relative like her father or her uncle, at first her research subjects would only engage with them. The irony of this isn’t lost on her. The transgender women are prescribed the same gender roles as biological women would have to. So she had to make adjustments.

“I had to retweak my technique. I had to lay the foundation about my research and tell them what I was there for so they wouldn’t ignore me,” Shah said.

For her research, Shah was interested in understanding how transgender women were perceived in Pakistan and what challenges they faced. This meant looking at discrimination in education, health, politics, and other areas of Pakistani society. Shah was also curious about how the government served, or didn’t serve, the community’s needs.

Shah examined the gaps in care and protections instituted for the community. Then she posited about the future and how Pakistan could more faithfully integrate its transgender population into mainstream society.

Among Shah’s findings was the significant uptick in corruption within the transgender community. Over the years, incidences of murder, violence, drug abuse, and prostitution have gone up dramatically, which Shah says is likely fueled by gurus forcing their transgender students to commit crime for money.

She also found an increase in the number of fake transgender women in Pakistan begging on the streets. According to Shah, young men, often in college, dress up like women and beg for money.

In Islam, the belief is that marginalized people are perhaps closer to God or that their prayers are more readily answered. So people give money to transgender beggars because they’re worried about bad omens if they don’t. The female impostors capitalize on this.

“I was really taken aback because it was not something I expected,” Shah said.

Shah’s experience researching in Pakistan helped confirm what she wants to do after she graduates from Georgetown. Law school is likely on her horizon with the hopes of continuing social justice and legal work that sheds light on communities like the one she studied.

“I realized that one of the best ways the transgender community advanced in Pakistan was through the law,” she said. “It was a way to see the power of the law on the ground and see how it impacts people on a practical level.”

—Lauren Ober

Related Information

Learn more about Shah’s research and the David F. Andretta Summer Research Scholarship.