‘Sex,” Kami Sid declares, “is between your legs. Gender is in your head.” Sid wants to get this into everyone’s head in Pakistan. A 26-year-old transgender activist, she is currently enjoying a breakthrough turn as a model who can carry off a sari while calling out Pakistanis for transphobia.
Pakistan may seem like an unlikely place for transgender activism. But in south Asia, the khawaja sira community (known as hijras), an organised group of trans people, have long been part of society and local culture. Over the years, however, khawaja siras have been relegated to a low-income group with few opportunities for employment or social advancement. In a landmark ruling in 2009, Pakistan’s supreme court recognised transgender people as equal citizens. Even so, harassment and discrimination remains prevalent. Khawaja siras are pushed into panhandling or prostitution, or forced to dance or sing for money; members of the trans community are stereotyped as effeminate people working in beauty salons. There have also been several murders in recent years.
“We’re not a third gender,” says Sid. “What is the first and second gender? You’re a woman. Are you first or second?”
Sid grew up in Karachi in a middle-class family with seven siblings – and a male name. “I was very feminine,” she recalls. Her family wouldn’t let her go outside for fear she would be molested. Her father passed away when she was an adolescent and she was raised by her mother, who Sid says is completely accepting. How did Sid come out to her? “A mother who carried someone in her womb and raised her … how can she not know?”
Kami thought she was gay until she was 19. “I knew that word. I thought I was different, [that] I wasn’t normal.”
She has a bachelor’s degree in business studies, and wanted to study in the UK – but couldn’t get a visa. Her brother got her a job at a freight-forwarding company, and then she landed work at a visa consultancy. In 2012, her outspokenness on Facebook got her noticed by an activist running an organisation focused on trans and MSM (men who have sex with men) issues. That year, Kami travelled abroad for the first time – to a transgender network conference in Thailand – which opened her to the world of activism. But it was her debut fashion shoot last year – as Pakistan’s first trans model – that brought on a slew of attention. It also led to a backlash in her family – including from some of her brothers. Sid believes they are angry about her publicly coming out.
On a weekend afternoon, Kami held court on the lawns of a hotel where the Karachi literature festival was underway, pausing to point out her partner of eight years, and calling out “jaadi” (roughly, the Urdu version of “dahling”) to friends.
Sid has a disarming sense of candour. Her openness extends from sharing that she once used kerosene oil to clean her hair after a shoot to talking about her partner. “When we started [dating], he was gay, so I was gay,” she says. “People ask me: ‘Did he leave you when you became so feminine?’ [But] he loves me, he loves my identity.”
Their flat is a nerve centre for friends – “it’s like a shopping plaza” – where Sid’s clothes are perpetually strewn around since she doesn’t like sorting them out. Sid enjoys wearing saris, watching slasher films and emulating the dances of the 90s Bollywood star Madhuri Dixit. She often takes over the dance floor at parties, and recently performed solo to a song by Naseebo Lal, a Pakistani singer whose music is rife with double entendres. “People’s jaws dropped.”
Kami has started modelling at a time when there’s a degree of global attention around transgender models and celebrities, from Andreja Pejić and Hari Nef to Caitlyn Jenner. Closer to home, the Nepali model Anjali Lama became the first trans person to walk at fashion week in India this year.
Being outed as trans was once the death knell for a catwalk career. Tracey Norman – a black American model who posed for Irving Penn and walked for Balenciaga – saw her career wither away after she was outed. There aren’t any other trans models in Pakistan, and while Sid isn’t particularly inspired by international stars (“Caitlyn [Jenner] is crazy, she still doesn’t think of herself as trans,” she says), she looks to models in the US such as Geena Rocero, and actor Laverne Cox. Sid recently posed for the Pakistani fashion magazine Libas, and laughs about a shoot in Denmark – “In a sari, in the cold!”
“You have to make a space for yourself in the fashion industry,” says Sid. “There’s so much lobbying. I’m here to change the concept.” She gleefully recounts how she walked out on a photographer because he hadn’t finished an earlier shoot on time. “You can’t let yourself be degraded.”
While Sid dismisses the idea of social classes as small-minded, her profile is markedly different from other transgender activists, and it’s obvious that her middle-class background and exposure have played their part. Khawaja sira leaders are largely restricted to community events, while Kami is invited to diplomatic-community soirees and welcomed into high-end beauty salons. She has been invited to speak at the Karachi literature festival’s travelling edition at the Southbank Centre, London, this month. Her education and eloquence has perhaps opened doors that are closed to more marginalised trans women.
But Sid is aware of the tokenism at play, and pushes back. Inclusion is the key theme of her work. She is already consulting with the Sindh province’s government on potential legislation to protect the transgender community. However, her mentors implore her to be politically correct, and her mother has told her not to do more TV appearances, fearing for her safety.
Later, on the phone, her mother slips into using the male Urdu pronoun. Sid only visits her mother when her brothers aren’t home. She has “Mama’s little boy” inked on her hand, inspired by the Indian actor Priyanka Chopra, who has a similar tattoo that reads: “Daddy’s little girl”. “This is the reality,” Sid says. “For my mother, I was born a boy.”
Sid turns 27 in May and identifies with her zodiac sign, Taurus. “It’s a bull, and when it gets angry it goes on a rampage. When I was very young I had a lot of rage. I don’t know what it’s called in psychological terms. I used to lash out, hit people. After working, there’s a sense of peace. Maybe it’s because I have seen [that] other people have more problems.”
Kami is adamant she will continue to work in Pakistan. “I know how to break stereotypes, darling,” she says. “I became a model; tomorrow I’ll become a mum. People think we’re just sex workers or beggars or dancers. After modelling, I’ve said we can become anything – doctors, engineers, teachers. We just need a platform.”