August 18, 2019

Trans rise in the digital age

Khursand Bayar Ali, 31, is revamping her aims and aspirations to survive in the digital age. She is an elegant, well-spoken, composed and confident transwoman who intends to buck all the odds whirl around the typical life of a transgender.

Originally from Islamabad, Khursand is now settled in Lahore after she had left her home some 10 years ago, though she didn’t have it easy. “As the economic prospects are declining, Pakistan is becoming an unpredictable place. No matter how brilliantly you conceive your idea of stability and how much you work hard for prospects, you never know when would you lose opulence. It happened to me, as well,” she says.

Finding the ways

Khursand, a trans activist, artist and an entrepreneur, is working to increase visibility of transgender community within the heavily binary patriarchal society.

Khursand runs a production company, Noutankey Productions, which conceives and produces theater, video reports, documentaries, short films, public service messages (PSMs) and other creative genres of visual narratives for digital audience. She established the company to produce informational entertaining content and aims to weave the concerns and problems of transgender community.

She believes that online spaces are the most appropriate medium to sensitize the society towards trans community and to raise the voice against ill-literacy, ignorance towards HIV, STDs, wrong practices, unemployment, disconsolate living and other deplorable oblivions existing within the trans community.

“It is a breakthrough towards the vision of social inclusion of transgender community.”

Khursand Bayar Ali on passing of The Pakistan Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018

Khursand was formerly associated with UN subsidiaries working on policy development for trans community in the sub-continent and served as an honorary chairing committee member for the key populations in Global Fund. She has also worked in Pakistan’s National HIV Aids Control Program.

Her success doesn’t stop her from learning and networking further. She is constantly looking online for events that she believes will help her promote trans rights, and has participated in many national and international conferences, symposiums and online webinars to learn about the problems of trans community and their solutions in different societies. She represented Pakistan and its trans community at the Muslim Transgender Conference in Nepal in early 2019.  “Online space helps me to grab opportunities like these to learn, travel, network and attract the attention.” She explains, “The event provided me the opportunity to earn respect in my Muslim society where KhwajaSaras are generally seen as morally bankrupt.”

As a community coordinator, she also contributed her two-cents while struggling with eminent scholars, legal experts, human rights advocates and senior community activists and allies behind the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018, lately passed in Pakistan. “Outsiders may not realize what promulgation of transgender rights law [means] to us – for a community which was living in their own country without any identification and without having access to basic needs such as right to inheritance, travel, education, health and employment,” Khursand says, “It is a breakthrough towards the vision of social inclusion of transgender community.”

Khursand Bayar Ali says digital media steers her to new arena to leap in to claim her share in every space.

She believes the implementation of law is a milestone left to achieve. “I am still a part of policy-making body working to identify and eliminate the discriminatory laws in constitution against the transgender community to help them exercise their civil rights fully,” she adds.

Presently, she is engaged as a community coordinator with a non-profit organization, The Sathi Foundation, focusing on transgender welfare. “My job involves travelling, meeting with dozens of people, piles of documentation and, above all, unending correspondences. I worked in Sathi and my Sathi is this 6 inch, never tiring, and forever assisting cell phone. Yes, I am married to my mobile phone,” she beams.

Social Media to peddle “Social Change”

Scrolling through Facebook and Instagram notifications, sorting her emails, managing notes on Google Keep, scheduling and organizing her appointments and to-dos on Evernote while checking the latest trends of fashion, she peeks through the events happening around, sale offers in town, and replying to the tens of WhatsApp messages beeping on her glistening screen of not-so-expensive cell phone, Khursand Bayar Ali says digital media steers her to new arena to leap in to claim her share in every space.

Khursand begins her day with a quick read through the latest news and happenings around the world on her Twitter feed. She says, “Let me confess, I’m not a big fan of politics, debates and other national or international affairs but instead of watching an hour of news bulletin and reading lengthy news articles, I prefer to sneak peek through Twitter and go for selected and best recommended reads only. Twitter connects me with hundreds of politicians, journalists, activists and scholars from across the globe.”

Digital media has now become her life style. She dedicates a considerable time everyday on several learning and self-improvement apps. These efforts include listening to motivational speakers and meditation guide podcasts; practicing exercises to improve personal skills; learning language and mastering grooming, communication, cooking and other soft skills. She believes that YouTube and blogging, made it easier to learn variant set of hybrid skills to grow oneself and their business. “I am a forever YouTube student,” Khursand adds.

“Online shopping is quite a convenience for everyone but for us, it is actually a savior of our dignity and self-esteem.”

Khursand Bayar Ali on how online shopping helps her avoid harassment in markets

Most of the times, KhwajaSaras are restricted from entering into malls or superstores and are compelled to do grocery or other shopping from nearby shops or small markets which often wreck them hooting, harassment and sometimes even stalking. As Khursand lives alone and enjoys doing her own work, she prefers to do her grocery and other regular shopping online.

“Online shopping is quite a convenience for everyone but for us, it is actually a savior of our dignity and self-esteem. Khursand explains, “Online shopping helps me a lot to keep my peace of mind intact while managing my time and energy in other productive activities.”

Speaking about her intent to stir trans community to adopt digital platforms to find opportunities of earning, she says, “KhwajaSara community has a ritual to extend their families, led by Guru, a senior figure in a KhwajaSara family. Due to sprinkling options of making money, an inside politics and struggle for survival within community is much worse than an outsider may expect. This is why I encourage young transgenders to educate themselves with the features of internet and artificial intelligence age technology, and thrive for the opportunities of respectful earning.” She emphasizes that no guru can assist them to explore the better and prosperous living than the digital media.

Directing the “Behropiya” (Masquerader) within

Speaking about her early life, Khursand tells that she was raised as a boy in a relatively less authoritarian and quite educated family. Though they are still incapable to understand her transformation, they have quietly accepted the new, content and settled, Khursand Bayar Ali. She was only 6 when she lost her father. She says it was difficult for her mother to acknowledge her as a girl instead of a boy that she raised her as. “She has departed but both of my sisters are not conventional in terms of many stereotypes [that] exist in our society with regards to the paranoia around gender identity.”

She was young; she was timid; but she dared to embrace her reality and there, all hell broke loose

Sharing the memories from her childhood, Khursand says, “If it had not been the internet, social media and Google, I could never convince them to accept me in a skin I belong to.” She adds, “Accepting me not as their brother or even as a gender-confused child, hurt them. I could feel their discomfort. I started researching online the relevant content and randomly share it to my timeline to persuade them the veracity of mine.”

She was young; she was timid; but she dared to embrace her reality and there, all hell broke loose. Everything around turned exasperating and troublesome. Among them, earning for living emerged as a real threatening challenge for her.

KhwajaSara or Transgender community in South Asia is estranged, persecuted and banished set of beings. These ill-fated individuals are usually relinquished by their own parents and siblings or are coerced to live a masqueraded life. The rebels who refuse to succumb to the annihilation often flee and seek refuge among people experiencing the same tragedy of rejection. They establish their own kinfolk systems despite abject poverty and crushing rejection.

To ensure her acceptance and survival, she mingled in one such family. She was confused as she had never spent her life as a Hijra or KhwajaSara ever before. “Neither I knew their rituals and customs and the language they speak nor I could opt begging, dancing or prostitution as the means of bread and butter. I was afraid but the fear of being alone among people who do not understand alienation was bigger and more daunting,” says Khursand.

KhwajaSara or Transgender community in South Asia is estranged, persecuted and banished set of beings

Remembering those dreadful days, she added that the search of identity led her to suffering, wandering, and sometimes devastated her to a point where she considered ending her own life to ease the pain.

Digital Reincarnation

The quest of unknown brought Khursand to Lahore. As she was not an absolute ill-literate, with the help of a trans activist friend, she got a job in KhwajaSara Society (KSS), a non-profit organization working for the welfare of transgender community.

 “Struggling in the Armageddon of right and wrong, I finally had developed the valor to not succumb and to contribute towards the change. That’s the time I actually embraced the digital media and gradually, I incorporated in, one after another, conveniences offered by the digital space to facilitate comfort and management of time in my work and in my life.” Khursand tightened the grip over her phone with a confident smile on her face.

Illustration by Aniqa Haider

Khursand is as dependent over the digital facilities available around as any of her cisgender peers. She usually hails a cab every day through a digital app, to reach her workplace. “For KhwajaSaras, public transport is no less than a nightmare. Other than groping and ill-treatment, often male passengers chide us to shift to female compartment whereas females remain uncomfortable finding us in their surroundings. We need to sensitise people towards the travelling needs of trans persons but the desired change might take a lot of time. At least for now, online cab services somehow have eased our commute hardships.”

“I incorporated in, one after another, conveniences offered by the digital space to facilitate comfort and management of time in my work and in my life”

Khursand Bayar Ali

Narrating her experience to manifest Noutankey Productions after losing her job at KSS, Khursand tells, “It was [a] blessing in disguise which paved ways to sow the seed of Noutankey Productions, a non-funded community based theatre group. I neither had had any formal drama and theatre training nor had the resources to launch a project like this, and bingo, there the community came forward.” While expressing gratitude towards the support she garnered from the trans community, she says her seniors suggested to learn drama and theatre, and juniors stepped forward to join the theatre group that she was developing.

She says, “The journey began. We simultaneously started working on our first script and our Facebook page.” She adds, “Despite spending money, outcomes were not satisfactory. After a while, with the help of YouTube videos and few of Facebook friends’ assistance, I first learnt to manage social media platforms for Noutankey Productions and then taught it to some of my Noutankey fellows to run it.”

She believes that social media, and particularly Facebook, plays a significant role to bring prospects in her search of self-improvement and self-employment. “Facebook offers dozens of features that assist me to extend my networking, structuring PR, influence social participation, and enhance interest development and, above all, to market and promote my dream project, The Noutankey Productions.

 Khursand’s theatre group so far has produced several plays and  performed them at different platforms including Al-Hamra Arts Council and Qaddafi Cultural Arts Centre in Lahore 

“This may seems not seem inspirational or an achievement big enough to mention but you see, most of the members of our community and the people they live with are absolutely ill-literate, to some extent are ill-mannered and sleazy and, above all, know no other sources of living and earning other than begging, dancing or becoming a sex-worker. To convince them, to inspire them, to educate them and to motivate them to learn simple things such as Facebook,Twitter or Gmail to find work or to do work is a great deal,” says the activist turned theater actor/writer/director.

Massam Ansari, a male ally working at one of the transgender welfare nonprofit organisations, says, “Mostly, KhwajaSaras do not have families, are not educated, do not inherit any asset, do not get any discretionary support from government, do not possess productive skills and are vulnerable to physical and sexual violence anywhere and everywhere. Hunger devastates them more than honour.” He continues, “A society which does not allow them to sit beside them, how can [they] tolerate them to live next to their home or work with them with an equal respect and dignity? Over the years, they become habitual of earning easy money through dancing and entertaining people in public or private events, begging, prostitution and sometimes even through criminal means such as stealing, robbing, blackmailing and other undignified activities.”

Khursand’s theatre group so far has produced several plays and performed them at different platforms including Al-Hamra Arts Council, Qaddafi Cultural Arts Centre, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Lahore, in almost all the universities of Lahore, and in different theatres and drama festivals in major cities of Pakistan, including Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad.

Khursand, along with her theatre group artists, recently participated in a theatre training offered by a local web TV. There, they explored some other grounds to assess their abilities and capabilities and develop an idea to take Noutankey digital.

“A society which does not allow them to sit beside them, how can [they] tolerate them to live next to their home or work with them with an equal respect and dignity?”

Massam Ansari on the difficulties faced by transgenders in finding respect in society

“Currently, we are set out for our new play regarding gender dysphoria to communicate the trauma of trans people to the society and community who pressurize them to pick a definite path to fit in which gradually dilapidated a person’s individuality,” says Khursand.

Team Noutankey targets to take it to the other platforms to sensitise the public. They are conducting debates and sessions online and offline to engage people in the discussion.

“Whenever we arrange such an event, we try to create an interactive and engaging Facebook post to draw people’s attention, particularly youth, to become part of the discourse. Facebook expedites me to reach out to more and more students and young people thanks to its targeted features like personalized news feed and directed marketing,” adds Khursand.

Ammar, a commerce and finance student, a community member and Khursand’s key member at Noutankey says, “We want to produce short documentaries, drama documentaries, video news reports, public service messages, and online theatre featuring the unsung transgender heroes, the community traumas and conflicts, our struggles and achievements, education and entertainment and building a narrative of equality, to release it on our online platforms and YouTube channel.”

“My team and I are determined to nurture a tree which serves me, them, community and our purpose”

Khursand Bayar Ali on her dreams for Noutankey Productions

Khursand says, “Some of our ally journalist and activist friends suggested YouTube monetization can help us to build a fortune for Noutankey Productions. Though I just have begun, my team and I are determined to nurture a tree which serves me, them, community and our purpose. Certainly, it requires resources, funding, efforts and time. I am determined and enthusiastic to sail the boat.”

One of her close friends, her student and a community member Xaif says, “Khursand is one among few of our community members whom we often called digi-hippies. With time and technology advancements, our community is also welcoming the prospects and opportunities it brings on, but we need time.”

The hitches in digital revolution

The same digital media that blessed Khursand with opportunities of learning and earning, has also made her an easy prey of the haters and conspirators.

Last year, a few websites began spreading false information that she had been running for the Mayor of Lahore. “I never have aspired to participate in politics and I have no idea who would [have] planted and circulated such fabricated news and why? I recently made a cybercrime complaint to remove the devious content from [the] internet,” says the trans activist.

The interactivity and information of social media brings ease, comfort, economic prospects, and networking opportunities but it has also bombarded Khursand with hatred, criticism, denunciations, blames and rebukes. She complained that the trolls libel her, tease her, bully her and discourage her attempts to bridge the gap between her community and society.

The same digital media that blessed Khursand with opportunities of 
learning and earning, has also made her an easy prey of the haters and 
conspirators.

Reacting to this downside of social media, Khursand tells, “The disgusting comments, offensive replies, instigating tags and scornful memes compelled me to unfriend my sisters and family from my personal social media accounts and even blocked them from our official Noutankey pages. I don’t want my sisters to see and suffer the emotional torture I have survived over the years.”

Trolls often leave no stone unturned to malign and deride anyone whom they dislike, disagree with or consider a threat to their definition of morality and civility. Other than journalists, politicians and activists and liberals, opinionated women and trans people are their prime targets.

“There were times when some unpleasant in fact, quite disrespected and derisive comments made me depressed, sometimes even remorseful but with time, I realized we cannot do anything of these trolls. They are depressed and discontented souls who are only meant to exist in online space to exercise their catharsis by cursing anyone who does not fit in their comfort box. I usually leave them unattended.” She adds, “Instead of replying to their foul language, I prefer to keep myself directed and dedicated towards users who actually participate in debate and want to learn more.”

“I don’t want my sisters to see and suffer the emotional torture I have survived over the years”

Khursand Bayar Ali on facing online harassment

Social media gives a platform to those working for the welfare of KhwajaSaras or trans people to mobilise society in raising awareness towards these ill-fated strata of society with respect, acceptance and morality. On the other hand, it also facilitates the extremists and fundamentalists to disparage these efforts, discourage progression, and to spread lies, ridicule, rumors, sensational gossip and maligning content targeting trans community.

Shakaib*, a journalist and a documenter at a local trans welfare society says, “Online space is not safe for trans persons as it seems. Given that the trans community is already marginalized, only a handful of trans persons use social media.” He explicates, “As most of them are quite careless and often leave their personal information on social media platforms, this exposes them to the haters and fanatics, who often use the tactics of name calling and vilification to muzzle them or hurl them with the threats of rape, gang rape and murder. Some of the maniacs do not stop at online victimization and bullying, they even manage to reach out to them in person.”

“Instead of replying to their foul language, I prefer to keep myself directed and dedicated towards users who actually participate in debate and want to learn more.”

Khursand Bayar Ali on dealing with trolls online

According to Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), only 10,418 people were recorded as transgenders which constitutes 0.005% of the 207.7 million population in census 2017.  After a pandemonium over unjustified count of transgenders, PBS admitted the present count is not thorough. Still, if out of the population of 10,000 and above ,not even ten transgenders are celebrated enough to be recalled on finger tips, then the society must need to address the inadequacies for not allowing one of its sections to mainstream as substantial participants.

Leaping into the digital arena

In elections 2018, social media buzzed with the once-ostracised, now-daring transgender contestants running for parliament and challenging the exclusion wreaked upon them by breaking the stereotypes and taboos associated with leadership, governance and policymaking. At least 14 transgender persons had taken part, but none gained enough support to secure any seat anywhere.

Social media played an important part in raising their ambitious voices and channeling their narratives. Some of them even enjoyed the brief span of fame and acceptance in their surroundings when the transgender welfare organizations geared up to promote their community members on social media which attracted the consideration of traditional media as well.

Likewise, the debates to resolve the issues related to basic civil rights of trans community, an intolerant behavior of society towards them and unequivocal condemnation of the violence against them, are a few of the recent endeavors KhwajaSaras have managed to accomplish with the help of a discourse and the support garnered online.

Sabotaging the clichés of being comic relief, sex amusement and/or crime facilitators only, a number of trans members stepped out to showcase their individuality such as the activist, theatre artist and entrepreneur Khursand, Coke Studio fame Naghma Gogi, activist and artist Jannat Ali, newscaster Marwia, politician Nayyab Ali, and recently appointed civil servant at Ministry of Human Rights, Ayesha Mughal. All of them are geared up to claim their share in society.

Maintaining the spirit, Khursand and her team Noutankey are laying the groundwork to produce short films, web series, theater and other visual stuff for a monetized YouTube channel to earn a living, and set an example for others to follow.

“Online space is a relatively safe, private and productive space which may help people to learn skills, formerly educate themselves and conduct outreach for support and networking. From online schooling to technical education to skill development, the opportunities are endless.” Khursand says, “As I discover possibilities for myself and trans community members associated with me, a challenging drive for amelioration can be peddled for other members of the trans community. Team Noutankey is committed to do so.”

Written by

Mehreen Fatima is a multimedia journalist, blogger, researcher and an academic writer/editor. She is a strong advocate of gender equality, democracy, human rights, independent journalism and freedom of expression. She tweets @IdealistAnsary

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