Dancing despite the fear

Pakistani Waseem Akram, 27, dances during a private party in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Jan. 15. By day, Akram sells mobile phone accessories from an alleyway shop in an old neighborhood of this Pakistani city. But by night he becomes Rani, a female wedding party dancer.

AP Photos/Muhammed Muheisen
Pakistani Waseem Akram, 27, dances during a private party in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Jan. 15. By day, Akram sells mobile phone accessories from an alleyway shop in an old neighborhood of this Pakistani city. But by night he becomes Rani, a female wedding party dancer.

EDITOR'S NOTE — Muhammed Muheisen, chief photographer in Islamabad for The Associated Press, spent two years talking with Pakistan's cross-dressing men and the transgendered, working to gain their trust to offer a rare glimpse into their lives in this conservative country.

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — By day, 27-year-old Waseem Akram sells mobile phone accessories from an alleyway shop in an old neighborhood of this Pakistani city. But by night, Akram stands before a mirror, shaving away his beard and picking through mascara and rouge to become Rani, a female wedding party dancer.

"Life is so hard, one job is not enough to help me and my family," Akram says, the bachelor's voice taking on Rani's higher register. "Being a dancer at weddings, parties and private events ... helps me to earn much more money than working in a shop."

Across conservative Pakistan, where Islamic extremists launch near-daily attacks and many follow a strict interpretation of their Muslim faith, male cross-dressers and the transgendered face a challenge of balancing two identities.

Some left their villages for the anonymity of a big city, fearing the reactions of their families while still concealing their identity from neighbors and co-workers.

Male and female roles are clearly defined in Pakistan, and transgender people often face harassment and abuse. One role where they are tolerated is as dancers at weddings and other celebrations at which men and women are strictly segregated.

In between the dancing and showers of rupee notes, they must fend off groping from drunken guests.

They can also be seen begging for money in the streets, wearing female dress and makeup.

Many earn money by blessing newborn babies, which reflects a widespread belief in Pakistan and other South Asian nations that God answers the prayers of someone born underprivileged.

A 2011 Supreme Court ruling allows the transgendered to get national identity cards recognizing them as neither male nor female and allowing them to vote.

Transgendered politicians also have run for office. In Punjabi, they're known as "hijra."

Estimates suggest thousands of "hijra" live among Pakistan's 180 million people.

For Akram though, being Rani means simply cross-dressing.

"I am not transgendered. I am a man who simply enjoys dancing and need money to have a better life and being a woman is the way," he tells The Associated Press in Rawalpindi, just outside of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.

Others proudly identify as transgendered, though they can feel people's stares.

"I am a very shy man. Eyes always follow me when I walk out of the apartment that I share with a few friends who share the same job like mine (as) dancers," says Bakhtawar Ijaz, 43, preparing to meet clients to design women's clothes. "Being with them is like being with a family. When I am surrounded by them, I feel safe, respected and empowered."

Amjad Mahmoud, a 44-year-old tailor, proudly identifies as transgendered. "The only thing that I can't do as a woman is conceive babies" Amjad says.

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