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Profile: Ikra Javed ’18 Reports on Pakistan’s Khawaja Sira

Ikra Javed ’18 (r) traveled to Pakistan to explore her heritage and the culture of a marginalized population -- the khawaja sira. Here, she is pictured with a khawaja sira.
Ikra Javed ’18 (r) traveled to Pakistan to explore her heritage and the culture of a marginalized population–the khawaja sira. Here, she is pictured with a khawaja sira.

Pakistan's gender non-conforming khawaja siras lead lives on the margins, interacting with the public as beggars, entertainers and sex workers. Ikra Javed '18 set out to document the lives of khawaja siras and the daily discrimination they face, and to bring their stories to the world through her work as a journalist for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Javed, who speaks Urdu fluently, had traveled to Pakistan prior to her junket as a reporter–she saw the Pulitzer opportunity as a chance to connect intellectually with her heritage.

"One of my early childhood memories was seeing a khawaja sira outside of the gates of my grandparents' home in Pakistan, begging for money," Javed said.

That memory and a gender studies course at Davidson that sparked her interest in the rights of transgender people stoked Javed's desire to learn more about the khawaja sira population.

The project began to take shape in the spring of 2016, when she was awarded a Dean Rusk grant that would allow her to embark on the culturally immersive study abroad opportunity.

While abroad, Javed worked as a journalist for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, an American nonprofit news media organization that specializes in underreported topics of global import. Davidson history professor Sarah Waheed referred Javed to Naz Pakistan, an LGBT-friendly, community-based organization based in Lahore, Pakistan. Through Naz Pakistan's ties within the community of Lahore, Javed secured interviews with local khawaja siras.

Ashi Jaan, age 45, takes a break from a protest held in Lahore after the brutal rape of two khawaja siras in the city of Peshawar in northern Pakistan. The protesters sought to raise awareness and demand rights for transgender individuals. Photo credit: Ikra Javed ’18
Ashi Jaan, age 45, takes a break from a protest held in Lahore after the brutal rape of two khawaja siras in the city of Peshawar in northern Pakistan. The protesters sought to raise awareness and demand rights for transgender individuals. Photo credit: Ikra Javed ’18

"I found that the identity of the khawaja sira is not really unanimously defined," she said. "Some might consider themselves to be cross-dressing males, while others say they are transgender women, or a third gender altogether. In a way, I left with more questions about who the khawaja sira are than I came with."

The culture of the khawaja sira dates back hundreds of years. Javed said that it is a hierarchical culture, and there are shared lifestyle traits among the khawaja sira, despite a lack of uniform identity.

But life for the khawaja sira is often difficult and sometimes dangerous, as there is little understanding of what it means to be transgender in Pakistan. In an effort to start a conversation about equality and discrimination within the highly stratified, socially conservative society, the khawaja sira have instigated protests.

Javed's experience with the khawaja sira represented a defining moment for the economics and history major–she has set her sights on the possibility of continuing the work in the future.

"As a journalist, you are supposed to be objective, which can be difficult, but I would love to return to Pakistan as an advocate for gender equality and the khawaja sira," she said.
Javed's work for the Pulitzer Center is available here.

Cody Little '20
colittle@davidson.edu