“I write in beautiful handwriting “female”, on a piece of white blank paper. Maybe, I want validation from this paper. Maybe I want to exist and sleep forever between the ‘f’ and the ‘e’.”

This is a reverberating and powerful cry Minahil penned down in her blog titled Female.

Love is very primal and something that every human being has a desire to express whether it’s platonic or romantic. In the urban setting of Pakistan, we often take a lot of things for granted. This long list includes our personal freedoms. Unless something directly affects us, we forget to ask, in this country of millions, what is keeping regular people like you and I from living our lives? Which pathways are full of hurdles? What ingredients are these hurdles made up of? Is it the establishment, moral police, tradition, or just our present circumstance?

When it comes to love, tradition and beliefs seem to hold us back from living and loving the way we would want to.

It has been 10 years since Pakistan has officially recognized its third gender but it was only recently that a wide-ranging piece of legislation was introduced that grants intersex people, eunuchs and trans-men and women the option to self-identify their gender on official forms. This means that a person born male can now hold a female passport. The bill doesn’t speak for other genders but it does prohibit discrimination in schools, at work, on public modes of transit and while receiving medical care for trans-people. It lays out their rights to inheritance, in accordance with their chosen gender and it obligates the government to establish protection centers and safe houses. However, the implementation is yet to be seen.

It is well known how ancient South Asian traditions have been embracing of gender fluidity. This legacy continued through our shrines with khwajasiras being revered as belonging to a sacred third gender.

Many believe trans-women have the power to bless and curse humans – a remaining faith from when they were seen as sacred. The reverence is not found outside the shrines anymore.

Gender defines us from the moment we are born. But what role does it play in stitching the fabric that makes us feel at home in ourselves?

We explore this question through Minahil Abideen’s canvas of life, love, and womanhood ­in a conservative society.

“My pronouns are she/her. In 2015, when I realized who I was, who I was comfortable being, i.e.: someone who isn’t a boy, I had the conception that Islam and Pakistani Culture will only shame me from being me, so I chose the name Angela for me, which was as far from what I thought was Pakistani Islamic Culture. But that name didn’t feel right or comfortable. I am a desi woman after all; I had to choose a desi name that could represent all aspects of my personality, my womanhood and my desiness. Thus I chose Minahil, a name I encountered on a TV drama. I hate that drama now, but I am grateful for it that it gave me my name. I love my name. My name and I are now inseparable.”

Minahil is currently a student in Government College University. Even though she hasn’t changed her identity on paper, she found her peers to be friendly and supportive in her journey.

Apart from studying, she enjoys painting sometimes wide and confident, and sometimes small and reflective strokes through her poetry and prose.

In her prose God, she fearlessly opens all the narrow human cages God usually gets confined in. She describes her experience of opening her heart to God as a feeling rather than a being.

We asked her to think about her childhood and upbringing, so she can recall how she got here.

 “I feel that the more abstract the concept of God is, the less is that concept of God prone to being used to exploit and oppress others. I belong to a religious minority and have seen my community being oppressed in the name of Religion. So I guess this idea evolved from my lived experience. Whenever we try to define God as a being, we give God a definition, which is very humanlike. Thus the God we tend to define has human virtues and human vices, human capacity to love and make peace, and human capacity to hate and make war. I think this is the basic premise of Reza Aslan’s book God A Human History, a book I still haven’t read but I should.”

For as far back as Minahil can remember, her body didn’t match her soul. Reflecting on her initial realization of genders and her relationship with her body and soul back then, she spoke about feeling nothing more than a vague discomfort with social gender roles and expectations. She recalled how it was the time of puberty when she felt f****d and she is unable to find other words to describe the feeling. It was only four years ago that she discovered her suffering has a name: gender dysphoria.

It made us think about other challenges gender minorities have to face. So we asked her:

In our country, we see many men & women not letting their gender define them now, but we also observe how it enables them to define themselves. Gender is something that is often left un-reflected so much at its core. I mean there are so many more aspects of it that we pay a lot of attention to than we can fathom. But then it seems like because this was denied you, this given — it did then become this absolutely huge obstacle in and of itself. Can you talk about the biggest challenge for you and how you learn to overcome it time & again?

This is such a complex but beautiful question; I hope I do justice to it. Gender is not just a psychological description of who you are. It is not just a feeling based identity. It is also how you, your body, interacts with the outside world and how the outside world interacts with you. Gender is thus both intrinsic and extrinsic.

 (I am a trans woman who comes out and then goes back in closet and then comes out again, keeping in mind the space and time. Right now in GCU, I am not even sure how out I am. I am out to some, not out to others, but this means that I am unintentionally out to everyone almost, as rumors love to travel.)

 Psychologically, I know I am a woman, because my identity as a woman feels most right to me. It is not something I can explain intellectually or defend philosophically, and I shouldn’t have to. Socially, I interact to my friends and my social circle, in the university and out, as a woman and they see me as a woman. Also, socially, I can’t use women only spaces, because no one apart from my circle sees me as a woman. The biggest challenge is the loneliness and alienation, but having friends who see me as who I really am i.e.: a woman helps me.

It’s a big sign of an empathetic soul to be able to consider things from other people’s perspective, especially when people’s usual behavior towards you is inconsiderate. In Sanskrit, there is a word “Mudita” that has no counterpart in English. It means sympathetic or unselfish joy, or joy in the good fortune of others. Mudita is said to be an antidote to jealousy, indifference and boredom. When we read Minahil’s work, we found it to have this incredible pull of empathy and warmth visible in the way she finds it natural how most of us make binaries as the foundation of worldviews to cling to and defend what we know over against what feels chaotic and new. It is only possible to grow into such a big and fruitful tree if you have roots deep in pain. Meditating over that, she simply said, “Pain is a thing that sucks. If you don’t watch out, it can make you toxic. But over the years, I have learnt to be nicer to others, and to understand where they are coming from, though not necessarily agree with them. It is easier to be empathetic, I guess, when you realize that people have a huge potential to grow, to become better, to heal, and to love more purely. And also realize simultaneously, that you, as an individual are also growing.”

We found Miss Abideen’s practice of decontextualizing very meditative – In the way she blurs out the person that in this particular case, was she, being laughed at, and instead of letting anger and hurt flourish, she managed to focus on children’s innocence. She intellectually approaches towards reality of division: the knower and the known have to be separate. We were curious to know how she sees this practice, so we asked:

Do you see this circle of witnessing widening in you as you write reflective prose? It is also a very healthy coping mechanism that we personally find very difficult to practice. Can you walk us through how you got your way around it?

“So when I was laughed at by these babies, I couldn’t get angry at them. I just became sad because I love children just laughing and having a good time. When I was being laughed at, I was too present in the scene and I saw myself rightfully as a victim. The distancing, the decontextualizing was done later in the prose I wrote when I came back to my room, away from bullying. The decontextualizing wasn’t done so I could heal, focus on children’s laughter and ignore me. It was done to put emphasis on the sadness of the entire situation. In my prose, I was still ever present, even though I made myself absent. My absence, and the sole focus on children, implied my presence in a way, on how bullying can show itself in the same way as extreme happiness one feels when seeing a comedy.  Of course it isn’t the children’s fault that they saw me as a comedic character, it is the CIStem.”

Read: Poison or chai, it all looks the same to an outsider.

We further talked about womanhood and what lessons it has taught Minahil.

“Because I wasn’t conditioned to be a woman, I had to embrace my womanhood in ways that would not at all fit in the binary. I think trans experience of womanhood tells you that there is no essence of womanhood, no essential quality present in womanhood, which everyone’s womanhood is different and equally valid. So many times I did fail at conforming to cis womanhood ideals and I still do and I am glad I do, because cis womanhood isn’t my ideal, living the truest version of myself is.”

Read: The Perfect Definition of a Woman.

Growing up in a confused and segregated society, we often come across with people questioning the morality of transition of trans-people. Our complicated understanding of culture/religion, makes people wondering about transition of genders, framing questions like if it’s right? Is this a sin? Is it an abomination? Is it contrary to scripture or tradition?

Minahil is trying to find space in Islam herself, but no one has told her that her being and identity are a sin. She thought how she would be more comfortable knowing that Quran is friendly to her identities, because she is a Muslim. It is an identity she adores.

As cis people — as cis women — we need to interrogate our own biases when it comes to being a good ally for our transgender sisters and non-binary siblings. Yes, we may feel discomfort in confronting your own biases. We should. It’s called growth. And growth is good. But have we actually created a system that allows growth and inclusivity to flourish?

“We don’t need inclusion into the cistem, which is patriarchal and capitalist. We need to radically change it, so that no marginalized community should ask the system to include them or to be tolerant of them.

The radical change of the cistem (The Death of the Cistem) is but a dream. We live in a very stubborn cistem based on neoliberalism and invidualistic liberal politics and I am very skeptical of this. But of course the answer to your question is education.”

Coming back to personal choice and love, Minahil highlighted the unstoppable power of love. “Love is scary because you are afraid of losing it. And when I lose it, I promise myself not to allow myself to fall in love again, but the very next day I fall in love with my friends, their dreams, their struggles, etc.”

Minahil’s resilience and constant self-acceptance is inspiring and contagious. For young people struggling with their identity, she had a simple message:

 “Never stop believing in Love, Kindness and Empathy, cutie. And don’t let go of Hope. Be gentle to yourself.”

Read Minahil’s Poem: Love in the time of dysphoria

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