16 June 2007

'Censors end' drag artist's show

By Syed Shoaib Hasan
BBC News, Karachi

"Darling, you are sooo naughty," purrs an elegant sari-clad woman glowing out of primetime television.

Going by the name of Begum (Lady) Nawazish Ali, she hosts an eponymous talk show that has taken Pakistan by storm.

Flirting and skirting her way through politics, society gossip and plain old sexual chemistry, Begum has become the most popular icon to inundate Pakistani fantasy in a while.

How is this possible in Pakistan where what is acceptable behaviour from female actors is still largely determined conservative Islamic values?

The answer lies in the identity of the Begum - who is a woman in every sense except the biological one.

"I am God's child," says a smiling Begum Nawazish Ali, or Ali Saleem to give him his birth name, talking to the BBC in his "normal guise".

Clad in jeans and T-shirt, 27-year-old Ali talked passionately about his life and work.

"As long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a woman," he declares.

I never refuse anyone anything
Nawazish Ali

Twirling his shoulder length curly brown hair, Ali looks wistfully in the distance as he recounts how it was growing up in Pakistan for someone so unconventional.

"My father was in the army and we used to move around quite a bit," he says.

With his parents, he accepts there were problems, leading to his examination by a psychologist when he was 14-years-old.

The psychologist, however, allayed all fears, and "from that time on my parents were totally behind me".

That Ali was different from other boys was quite evident from his interests.

"I loved playing with dolls and dressing up with my female cousins to whom I have always been very close," he recounts.

In those days of innocence, he would often dream of becoming a woman.

"I wanted to be Sri Devi, Nazia Hasan, Benazir Bhutto... all the beautiful and powerful women in my world," explains Ali.

'Worst period'

Gifted with a great voice and a natural sense of the theatrical, he delighted in displaying his talents.

That was in the early 1990s in Islamabad. Soon after, in 1995, Ali shifted with his family to Karachi.

This was "the worst period in my life", he confesses, with his parents going through a divorce.

It was during these depressing days that Ali met "Yasmin, who made everything possible".

Yasmin Ismail was one of Pakistani television's finest actresses, who died of cancer last year.

"She was the best thing that ever happened to me," says the screen star.

Ali explains how Ismail introduced him to theatre, groomed his natural histrionics and generally played the part of his mentor.

"She was my mother, father and best friend," says Ali wistfully, adding "I give her 100% credit for any success I have achieved."

Ismail was involved in a popular theatre group called Gripps, and that was where Ali started out.

"My first performance was in a play called 'Art ya Atta' (Art or Bread) in May 1998," Ali says. He did an impersonation of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in the play.

"When I spoke, there was pin drop silence and then the house came down," he exclaims.

The applause was thunderous and the show did record business.

Divorced socialite

The next six years were those of learning and growth. During these times, Ali expanded his repertoire with considerable success.

In March 2004, the idea for transvestite chat show hostess Begum Nawazish Ali first came up during a discussion with friends Nadeem Baig and Omar Adil, a national TV host, in Lahore.

"Omar said that he saw me as much more than the typical characters I was doing and we came up with the idea of this middle aged divorced socialite who knows everybody," gushes out Ali.

Initially, Ali promoted it with GEO, one of the largest TV channels. That deal failed to materialize and rival channel Aaj took up the challenge, quickly putting out a pilot.

"Nadeem was Director entertainment and he told me to bring it over," Ali explains. Aaj moved quickly, and a pilot was soon out.

"It was like nothing anybody had seen," says Azfar Ali, a local television producer. "The most amazing thing was the fact that he was able to deliver it all in a way that the masses could relate to it."

Trivialising politics?

No sooner had the first programme finished than the show was the talk of the town.

From politicians to movie stars to sportsmen, all have had their turn on the show.

So popular has the show become that a sitting federal minister specially requested to be invited.

That may have been unnecessary, as Ali smiles and declares saucily, "I never refuse anyone anything".

The show is not without critics, who accuse it of trivialising politics in a country that has had more than its fill of dictators.

Ali denies this, saying "our politicians have been destroyed under a well thought campaign", adding "I want them to be popular again".

Furthermore, he says that the military - such a powerful influence in Pakistan - have been deliberately kept out of the show.

"I believe that democracy is the only option for us, and this is my contribution to the cause," Ali says determinedly.

He also wants to show what kind of country Pakistan really is, in contrast to the 'Terrorism Central' nation that it is often portrayed as.

"And I will do it," Begum exclaims and, smiling seductively, adds "after all who can resist me?"
Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2006/11/06 10:15:32 GMT


05 June 2007

A Proud Young Woman

I was...
I was born Vijay, to Marwari parents in Nagpur, Maharashtra. Some of the earliest memories I have are of being different from the other boys around me. At that stage, I couldn’t exactly pinpoint what it was that made me feel so trapped and helpless. As a child, one is not equipped to handle thoughts as mature and complex as gender or sexuality. But as I grew older and more aware of the world around me, I also became more aware of the world inside of me. And it confused me more.

The first awakening...

The movie, “Object of my Affection” opened my eyes to a new possibility. One I had not considered till that point. Homosexuality seemed the only plausible answer to my situation. And I decided that I was a gay man, and began dating men. However, the respite I received from this new lifestyle was not as fulfilling as I had envisioned. For the emptiness, the confusion and the confinement still gnawed at me, deep inside. It was in the 11 th grade when I met Karan*, and fell in love. Being with him opened me up, and that woman inside of me, whom I had kept suppressed this whole time, slowly began to emerge. He was the first person I opened myself up to. I told him everything. My fears, my state of mind and my deepest needs.
He understood, and he loved me for everything that I was. But it was not meant to last, for we live in a very unforgiving, judgmental world which has no compassion for anything that is different. The pressures of society were too much for Karan and we parted ways in 2001.

The road ahead...
I joined St. Stephens College, as a gay man . But I was a woman and wanted to be loved as one. And the more I lived this life, the more it chewed at my mind that I wanted to be with someone who would love me, not as a man, but as a woman . It was then that Hollywood would come to my rescue for the second time in my life. The movie, “Boys don’t Cry” finally discussed transsexuality and the fact that it is not as freakish as I had thought. Spurred on, I looked to the internet to enlighten me further about this new and wonderful opportunity that had appeared before me. What I discovered from that point on made me happier and stronger as each day passed. The shame and hurt soon turned to hope and courage.

The Struggle...
As luck would have it, everything at that point started to happen at the same time. Karan came back into my life, only to leave again. My family finally discovered my condition and made me seek medical help with the intention of making me see that all that I felt was just in my head and if I was only convinced otherwise, I would be able to carry on living as a man.
It was during this time that God sent me an angel, in the form of Dr. Amit Sen, my therapist. He made me see that what I was going through was genuine and that there was a way by which I could set myself free. It was he who began my slow transition from scared, confused man to happy, confident woman.

It was now, during my MA in Sanskrit that I decided to start my life anew. I shifted from North Delhi to Defense Colony. The shift was much more, however, since I shifted into my new home as myself, a woman called Mahua Agarwal.
I had been on hormone therapy for a while by now, which helped not only my physical appearance, but also the way I was perceived by other people.
After living as a woman for about a year, I was finally ready for the operation that would change my life forever. I underwent my Sexual Reassignment Surgery in August, 2006 and have been living as a woman ever since.

At peace, finally...
Now I am finally in a place where I am comfortable with myself. For the first time in my life, not only can I stand to look at the person I see in the mirror every day, but I am beginning to love her. I have no regrets, no expectations from my life or the people around me now.
But if I could, one thing I would like is to tell my story to as many people as I can, in the hope that through my experiences, they may learn tolerance and forgiveness for that which they don’t understand.

* Name has been changed.
Appeared in Indiatimes-Phatchicks

Mr ya Miss?

Sex change operations are on the rise in India and are being resorted to by people from all walks of life, report Shuma Raha, Gouri Shukla and Anirban Das Mahapatra

The media circus around the Mafatlal property dispute last month was mainly because the case had an irresistible sideshow to it: Ajay Mafatlal, who was staking claim to his family property as the elder brother among his siblings, was not a natural born man. Originally a woman (he’s been Aparna Mafatlal for most of his life), he had undergone a sex change operation to become a man.

But if you thought sex change operations were the prerogative of the rich and the famous, those with the money and the leisure to indulge their whims and fantasies, think again. Cases of sex change operation, or sex reassignment surgery, as it is called, are on the rise in India. And the people going in for it come from all walks of life. Points out Dr Manohar Lal Sharma, a Delhi-based plastic surgeon, “I have had patients ranging from schoolteachers to MBAs, from barristers to bureaucrats.”

Dr Sharma says that up until the mid-Nineties, he would probably do one sex change surgery in two years. “But these days, I do about three to five surgeries every year. I receive about one request for a sex change operation every week, though not all of them eventually go in for the procedure,” he says.

But those who do, are passionately, deeply, committed to their choice. Take Tara, a 28-year-old teacher from Delhi, for instance. She wanted to become a man so she could marry her girlfriend. She underwent extensive counselling sessions and remained undeterred in her decision to go ahead with the procedure. The operation took place three years ago, after which they got married. They have been living as man and wife ever since.

So why do some people feel compelled to transform themselves into their opposite genders? Rocky, a 32-year-old transsexual, who went in for a sex change operation four years ago, says he never felt like a woman. “I always felt like a man trapped in a female body,” he says. Explains Dr Kalpesh Gajiwala, a plastic surgeon in Mumbai who carried out Aparna Mafatlal’s operation, “The need for sex change is triggered by gender dysphoria, or a gender identity crisis, where an individual wants to realign his or her body to his or her gender perception.” He adds: “Basically, these are people who feel that they are caught in the wrong body. And sex change offers them a way out of their predicament.”

A sex change procedure ? from male to female or vice versa ? involves changing the genitalia as well as other physical attributes like breasts or body hair. It is a fairly expensive process and costs upwards of Rs 1.5 lakh for male to female, and about Rs 4 lakh for female to male operations. “It involves hormone therapy and multiple operations, done in stages,” says Dr Mukund Thatte, another plastic surgeon based in Mumbai. But before that, the patient has to be counselled about the physical and social fallout of sex change and a psychiatrist has to give his approval that he or she is indeed ready to undergo the procedure.

“Ultimately, it’s the individual’s psychology that drives the decision,” says Dr Gajiwala. Ashok, a 58-year-old businessman in Delhi, has sought a sex change operation. “I have lived in a man’s body all my life, but I want to die as a woman,” he told Dr Sharma. Ashok, whose treatment is currently on, has cut his ties with his entire family to start a new life in a new place and under a new name.

The question of identity is, of course, crucial in such cases. A new body requires a new persona and in any case most people want to treat their past as a closed chapter and start on a clean slate. Says Dr Gajiwala, “Most of the time, the individual relocates after the sex change operation has been carried out. This saves them the trauma of being questioned again and again.”

But despite the rise in the incidence of sex change operations, social acceptance of transgendered people is still a long way off in India. “Few families, unless they are exceptionally broad-minded, support a person who undergoes a sex change,” says Dr Gajiwala. The support usually comes from the partner and from the peer group of like-minded people.

Social opprobrium apart, a sex changed person has also got to deal with the limitations of the procedure itself. “The patient has to accept the idea that he or she will suffer a complete loss of fertility,” says Dr Sharma. Adds Dr Thatte, “Penile reconstruction is the most difficult part of the surgery, which is one reason female to male procedures may not always be satisfactory.”

Again, while most transgendered persons report being happy with their new life, there have been odd cases of sex change operations with tragic consequences. A woman, a bank employee, who came to Calcutta from Patna determined to become a man and marry her girlfriend, broke down after her breasts were removed. “She never came back for the remainder of the operations and eventually committed suicide,” says Dr Tapas Chakraborty, an anaesthetist who was part of the team of doctors who conducted the operation.

The road to sex change and thereafter is fraught with many a pitfall. But those who want to correct the mismatch between their mind and body could take heart: it’s a road that’s being traversed more frequently now.

(Some names have been changed on request)

appeared in the Telegraph Calcutta

Sex-change couple jailed for three years in Pakistan

Indo-Asian News Service
Islamabad/Karachi, May 28, 2007

Last Updated: 14:18 IST(28/5/2007)

A Pakistani court on Monday handed down a three-year jail sentence for deception to a wife and her husband who was born a female and underwent a sex change 16 years ago, DPA reported.

Shahzina Tariq, 26, and husband Shumail Raj, 31, were arrested by police nine days ago after they appealed to the Lahore High Court for protection from relatives seeking to have their marriage annulled on the grounds that it was against Islam for women to wed.

Shumail's gender change came to light during a medical exam by a court doctor.

The judge jailed the couple for misleading the court and directed that Raj should be given psychological treatment. Authorities were also ordered to register a case against the doctors who originally performed the sex reassignment.

The couple says they originally married to protect Shahzina from being sold into marriage to pay off her uncle's gambling debts.

According to Pakistani media, Shahzina said relatives had tortured and threatened to kill her if she did not consent to the forced marriage to a brother-in-law of her uncle.

Meanwhile, the sex change and their subsequent marriage has attracted extreme sentiments in Pakistan.

Although there is no law in Pakistan to prevent their marriage, whether they should be allowed to stay married, considered married, their right to live under one room and to seek divorce for lack of consummation, are the questions being debated.

"Can Raj perform sex?" was another question asked as Daily Times sought views of cross sections.

The role of religion, a dominant question in Pakistan in any situation, is a matter of debate in what is being claimed as the first case in the country. Leaders of the two principal Muslim sects differ while disapproving of the marriage.

Shia cleric Allama Syed Abbas Sherazi says: It depends on the courts to give punishment to such people according to the circumstances to save the society from distraction. In Shia sect the same-sex marriage is considered "haram". The clerics in their Friday prayer sermons should educate the nation about the curse of same sex marriages and obscenity.

But his Sunni counterpart, Maulana Hanif Jalandhari, says: "The court can give the couple a capital punishment, a lifetime imprisonment or a fine."

"The media is spreading vulgarity in Pakistan. The parents should force their children to say their prayers. The clerics should educate Muslims about the conspiracy of the anti-Islamic forces," says Jalandhari.

Zahid Hussain Bokhari, a retired judge, says: There is no law in Pakistan to stop two women from living together. It is against the basic human rights to interfere in their personal matters. The 'nikahnama' (marriage contract) procured by Shumail Raj and Shahzina has no importance. They should not be dealt as married.

SM Masud, a former law minister, says the case should be handled in the light of Islam, as there is no provision in Pakistani law.

"If the husband cannot perform sex, the law gives this right to the wife to get a divorce. Shumail looks like a man, but if "she" cannot perform sex, "her" wife Shahzina has the right to get divorced."

"The couple has not committed any offence, as penetration is essential for imposition of the Section 377 of the Pakistan Panel Code (PCC). Fatwas issued in the past should also be consulted in this case."

If the marriage is a case of women's right or harassment, the Women's Protection Act, passed last year, is silent, says criminal law expert Aftab Bajwa.