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Pakistan's trans community shows love for 'Joyland' — but worries about a backlash

Ali Junejo (left) and Alina Khan portray a married man and a transgender woman who kindle a romance in Pakistani director Saim Sadiq's award-winning film <em>Joyland. </em>
Oscilloscope Laboratories
Ali Junejo (left) and Alina Khan portray a married man and a transgender woman who kindle a romance in Pakistani director Saim Sadiq's award-winning film Joyland.

The Pakistani movie Joyland has made headlines around the world for its ground-breaking depiction of a love story between a married cisgender man and a transgender woman in the city of Lahore. (Cisgender refers to a person whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth.)

It was initially banned in Pakistan after "a campaign accusing the film of inappropriate content," as NPR has reported. But the ban was reversed in much of the country. The movie won multiple prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and was Pakistan's submission for this past March's Academy Awards (although it didn't earn a nomination). Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai signed on as an executive producer. Joyland opened in U.S. theaters in April.

For the most part, Pakistan's trans community agrees with the accolades. "I don't like to give any negative comments for the movie, as it's the only movie which has given us a representation," says Shahzadi Rai, a transgender political activist and violence case manager at Karachi-based nongovernmental organization Gender Interactive Alliance. "We were extremely happy that for the first time, world cinemas were releasing a movie of a Pakistani Khwaja Sira," Rai says, using the term for the third gender community in Pakistan, which includes trans folks.

"Everybody across the class spectrum of the Khwaja Sira community agrees that the movie did an incredibly accurate job of representing the community and its issues," says Dr. Mehrub Awan, a trans activist in Karachi.

But some worry that the increased visibility brought by the film is a double-edged sword, leading to misconceptions — and even harm — from the general public at a time when opponents are pushing back against trans rights.

In the movie, trans performer Alina Khan plays the fiery Biba. Haider, after long being unemployed, gets a job as a dancer in Biba's show and a romance begins. Biba shares that she hopes to undergo gender-affirming surgery.

"As a community we don't care if you have done [gender-affirming] surgery or not. For us, a trans [person] is trans if they identify themselves as trans, regardless of their genitals," says Anaya Rahimi, a theater performer and stand-up comedian based in Lahore who is transgender.

In an NPR guide to gender terms, the definition of trans is: "an adjective used to describe someone whose gender identity differs from the sex assigned at birth. A transgender man, for example, is someone who was listed as female at birth but whose gender identity is male." Gender-affirming surgery is not part of the definition.

Now some members of the trans community in Pakistan worry the general public will come away from the movie with the idea that all transgender women have male genitals – and that could lead to discrimination against trans women, who in Pakistan use women's washrooms, sit in the women's section of public transport and prefer to be interrogated by women police when trouble arises.

The movie could also lead to unsettling inquiries, says members of the trans community. Rai, for example, who has undergone gender-affirming surgery, says she's been questioned about her private parts since the film came out. "Because of this movie, people now bluntly ask if we have [a] penis." She also says she was questioned about "my private parts" on a Twitter space discussion: "I was harassed and shamed."

"I am now uncomfortable in public washrooms," she says.

These emotions are playing out against an uncertain legislative environment for the trans community.

In 2012, Pakistan's Supreme Court ruled that all trans people can legally be designated as a third gender. And in 2018, Pakistan's parliament passed a transgender rights bill. But trans people still endure discrimination and violence – for example, an Amnesty International Report found that "In the last year alone (October 2021 – September 2022) 18 transgender people were reported to have been killed in Pakistan – the highest figure in Asia."

And there is now a push to amend the 2018 bill, led by a senator in the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami. Conservative religious groups in Pakistan say that anyone who's assigned male at birth is a man and that only Allah has the authority to decide gender. The proposed changes to the law include examinations of transgender people by a medical board.

Joyland's release coincided with this pushback and it got caught up in the debate, says the film's director Saim Sadiq.

Although Pakistan's countrywide ban on the film was reversed, the ban still holds in the province of Punjab, home to the movie's setting of Lahore and just over half of the country's transgender community. Pakistan Bureau of Statistics census data from 2017 put the total transgender population of the country at 21,744.

"My biggest joy [would be] to see this film in my hometown, Lahore," Sadiq says. "I have already filed a suit in Lahore high court to be able to undo the ban in Punjab." But the trans performer Rahimi thinks it's best that the film not be released in Punjab for fear of additional backlash. She fears for her safety in public spaces.

"I respect any and all sentiments that may arise as a response to the film," Sadiq says. He says that he worked closely with the Khwaja Sira Society, a nonprofit group in Pakistan, during a five-to-six month research period. The film's star Khan and the program director of the Khwaja Sira Society, both trans people, served as script consultants. It's not possible to cram every detail about the Khwaja Sira into a two-hour film and that wasn't his intent as an artist, Sadiq says.

While the Khwaja Sira community has been visible in Pakistan for a long time, "now the visibility is becoming nuanced and transgressive and positive," for many reasons besides Joyland, like the trans bill, Sadiq says. "The thankfully changing discourse does bring an unease and discomfort with it which is unfortunate, but that's how conservative societies battle with progressive ideas and elements. It is a long road ... hopefully ... the upcoming steps will not be this uneasy and fearful."

When members of the public make uninformed generalizations, he says, "we should strive to put the burden of responsibility and course correction on the one making those generalizations, not on a film like Joyland and certainly not on the Khwaja Sira community."

The filmmakers paid great attention to detail in their research, says the transgender activist Dr. Awan. "The one message that this movie conveys is how complex loving is for all people in Pakistan regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity."

Benazir Samad is an international journalist at Voice of America in Washington, D.C. She tweets @benazirmirsamad

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Benazir Samad