We felt it important to include this article to highlight some of the challenges and complex situations that exist surrounding dance. This article specifically addresses the experience of what it's like to be an Afghan transgender dancer in Pakistan facing deportation and severe economic, social, and political hardship.
PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN – You cannot talk to Gulalai in the language of her adopted country. Despite living in Pakistan for the past 17 years, she has been unable to properly learn Urdu and remains confined to her native Pashto. As a member of the transgender community, language is just one of the barriers she faces.
“I never learned Urdu because I rarely go out of the small world we have created for ourselves [to stay safe],” she says in Pashto.
Gulalai left Afghanistan when she was only eight years old. Now a shy 25-year-old, she speaks only when spoken to...
...Once in Pakistan, she was introduced to someone she was told was a guru – an elder in the transgender community – who took her in. Like so many trans youngsters, she grew into one of the only professions open to her, that of a dancer.
“Most of the transgender people are either thrown out or run away from their homes at an early age,” says Farzana Jan, a transgender activist whose home in Peshawar is a meeting point for the community. One of the leaders of rights group Trans Action Alliance, based in the capital of KP (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) province, she explains the bind that Gulalai and others are in: “They neither get formal education nor any professional training. So they can’t get into a profession deemed respectable by the rest of society.”
Among those who do not become dancers, Farzana says, many find work on Dalazak Road, Peshawar’s red-light district. Dancers are in demand for public events such as weddings, and Gulalai remembers how she shook with fear on her first outings.
“I realized that I would have to dance in order to survive because my guru expected me to earn money. We are often teased, groped and abused by men.”
However, even this precarious life is now under threat...
Gulalai, 25, a transgender Afghan living in Pakistan, covers her face to protect her identity. (Photo by Umer Ali)