LAHORE, 12 April (IRIN) - Looking carefully at her reflection in a shop window, Azra combs out her dark, somewhat stringy hair. She then coyly flicks the lock back over her shoulder, adjusts her red 'duppatta' (scarf), and approaches two women shopping in Pakistan's western city of Lahore. In response to her high-pitched pleas, and saucy comments about their looks, the women hand over a few coins – and Azra sways away, her hips swinging as she moves down the pavement. Azra was born as Azam, in a village close to the city. Her parents, who already had two daughters, were delighted over the birth of their first son and distributed sweets through the village to mark the occasion. But, Azra says, talking to IRIN, "Almost from the start, I knew I was different. I felt like wearing the shiny dresses my sisters wore, and playing with their dolls – but I was beaten by my father each time he caught me draping a bright duppatta around my head, or trying on my sisters' shoes." When he was 15 years old, Azam ran away and his parents seemed relieved to see him go, as did his two younger brothers, both 'real boys', according to Azam. Azam was spotted on the streets of Lahore by other hijras (transvestites or hermaphrodites), and taken home by them to their house in the city's Mozang area, where six 'daughters' lived under the guidance of their 'mistress', an elderly hijra who presides over the unusual household with an iron hand. The hijras, or transgender people as they are sometimes known, occupy an unusual position within South Asian society. They have long been an entrenched part of the culture in Pakistan and India, with the first references to their existence appearing in ancient Hindu texts dating back to 1000 BC. But then, as is the case now, the hijras are considered social outcasts, existing in a strange, no man's land. They are however reluctantly accepted – even though they are often an object of laughter, scorn or even fear. Tahir Khilji, Director of Vision Pakistan, a social organization that aims to educate male sexual workers - including transvestites - about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases and to rehabilitate sex workers, has been working with the hijra community for several years. His is the first organisation to take up the issue of male sex workers, using HIV/AIDS as the route to approach it. Khilji and his sister, Naheed Khilji, have described the hijras as "innocent people", who have been rejected by society and are extremely vulnerable to exploitation. They point out that even the hijras' families refuse to accept them. Many myths exist about the hijras in local tradition. "It was because of a hijra's prayers that I was blessed with children. I remained childless for eight years after my marriage because another hijra had placed a curse on me," Habiba Bibi, 40, told IRIN. Many ordinary people believe the hijras have mysterious powers to curse, or bless people, and that it is important not to anger a hijra to avoid her curse. This is one of the reasons hijras are traditionally invited in to sing and perform at occasions such as weddings or the birth of a male child. While in some cases they gather outside homes where such ceremonies are being held, aware that they will be called in and showered with cash and gifts to avoid bad luck, in other cases they are invited to perform by those hosting ceremonies. The hijras, at least 10,000 of whom operate in Lahore, are clustered in various parts of the city. One point is Heera Mandi (Diamond Market), the red light area of the city, where they have lived for centuries. Some still based there claim they have descended from the eunuchs who served as servants in the courts of the Mughul rulers of India, several hundred years ago. Others live in Samnabad, Mozang and other areas scattered through the city, almost always setting up house under an elder 'guru', or mistress, who is in charge. They are divided into castes and sub-castes, and live under their own set of cultural rules. Many hijras pray regularly, but do not attend mosques, taking on the role of women in this regard. In some cases, they are taken by men as long-time lovers, or mistresses. Many hang around shrines, as they have done for centuries. "Most of us know very early in life that we are different. We ourselves choose this life. The stories that baby boys are stolen away by hijras and castrated are false," maintains Ghazal. Ghazal (not her real name), was born as Ahmed to a relatively well off family in Wazirabad, a small town some 200 km from Lahore. "My parents sent me to psychologists, doctors, everything, in the hope I could be cured. Now I am just relieved I can be myself," she said. While most transgender people in the city are transvestites, or "people who have women's souls inside men's bodies" as the hijras themselves say, others have undergone crude sex change operations. This essentially means castration – an operation secretly performed by gurus. Hijras seeking the surgery visit homes where it is performed, and the patient is then kept heavily dosed with painkillers and sedatives for days afterwards. Some die as a result of the procedure. Others take female hormones to encourage breast development, a change in voice and reduce body hair. Many don't bother – but almost all spend a considerable amount of time on their elaborate make-up, jewellery and attire – which makes them look like colourful, gaudy butterflies as they flit through bazaars, collecting 'gifts' from shoppers or traders. The loud, rude comments made by the hijras about those who give nothing often act as an incentive to hand over a few notes, with the turfs along which groups of hijras operate strictly delineated according to the code by which the community known as the 'third sex' lead their hidden lives. Apart from this, they earn money by singing at special occasions, such as weddings, and through prostitution. Male prostitution, not only among hijras but also other categories of male sex workers, is common in Lahore and other cities, despite the religious taboos that exist. Like their female counterparts, the male sex workers suffer acute exploitation, and indeed some argue that their situation is even worse than that of female sex workers because of the ignorance that exists about the dangers of HIV infection and the fact that all such sex is deemed a criminal act under Pakistan's Islamic laws. Locked in their own, largely hidden world, the hijras continue in the midst of a society that does not understand them, and indeed barely tolerates them. This has, for them, been the norm for centuries – and remains their way of life in a modern world where they have created a precarious niche for themselves.