We are sitting on a charpoy in a makeshift tent. Next to me is Saima. She is young, maybe in her early 20s. I don’t ask.

She is wearing a blue salwar kameez with a low neck. He black bra thrusts her non-existent breasts upwards in a desperate effort to pass off as a woman. She is dark, but her face is dabbed with a lighter shade of makeup. Her complexion forces itself through the bright makeup near the edge of her face. There is a gold chain around her neck and two long earrings. There is blue bindiya on her forehead. Her eyebrows are neatly shaped and a line of kohl lengthens her eye. She has put a black mark on her face to ward off the evil eye. She flutters her eyelashes flirtatiously as I interview her.

“Is Saima your real name?” I ask.

“No. It’s my stage name. All of us pick up filmy names that we like,” she says with a giggle, slapping my hand.

Her friend laughs softly, covering her mouth. She is sitting on the charpoy next to mine. Her black salwar kameez is also cut deep, the straps of her white bra visible through the thin fabric of her shirt.

Unlike Saima, she has done a better job of covering every visible part of her skin, including her arms, with bright make up. I can smell the foundation off her. She, too, has a black mark on her face and a small bindiya. There is a taveez as well as a gold chain around her neck. A tuft of her hair has been dyed red and a curled strand, also red, falls on her face. She too seems as old as Saima. “My friend calls herself Soniya,” Saima says. “Billu and Sheela are dancing outside.”

Stories of darkness

There are hundreds of such makeshift tents all around us, with several charpoys within each of them. It is way past midnight and there is a chilly breeze. The month is October and the weather is beginning to turn.

Next to the tent is their arena, a small cordoned-off space where several of them dance vociferously, thumping their feet loudly on the ground, as if trying to bring the earth to a halt.

Loudspeakers are placed in the middle, blaring racy Punjabi songs. Thousands of boys and men watch the dancers, staring lustfully at them.

Everyone is tightly packed together; there is no space to pass through. Notes of Rs 10 are scattered on the ground, which a caretaker collects regularly. There are dozens of such arenas all around and the different songs drown each other out.

It is loud, but the sound merges into the night. There is no village or city around us which the sound might perturb. The nearest city, Chunian, is several miles away.

“I am a woman born in a man’s body,” says Saima. Her jolly mood – as well as the accentuated feminine movement – has worn off. She sinks into her body. She wants to disappear. The loud sound of the music outside recedes into the background.

“Everyone used to make fun of me while I was in school,” she says. “I was a bright student, but I hated going to school. I could not complete my education because of the bullying. Students used to make fun of the way I walked, talked and moved my hands. I have an older brother who used to beat me up. He wanted me to stop being a khusra (transgender). My parents knew, but they would turn a blind eye towards it. I left home when I was 15. I think my brother and father were glad. I haven’t seen my family since. I miss my mother but I cannot see her.”

“I never wanted to do this – this vulgarity,” she adds. “I wanted to study, become a doctor or an engineer. None of us here wanted this profession but we don’t have any option. This is the only profession the world wants to see us in. It is as if they want us to be who we are and then curse us for what we become. The maulvis don’t say our namaz-i-jinnazah (a funeral prayer) at the time of our death and don’t allow us to be buried in a regular graveyard. We bury each other in the darkness of the night when no one is looking.”

A space of acceptance

“But they are respected immensely here,” intercedes Majeed, our guide for the night, a middle-aged man, with a short beard. Saima’s story seems to have had no impact on him. “They are known as Babe ki chidiyaan (birds of the saint).”

Through the night, he has been lambasting us with propaganda about the shrine that we are gathered near, for the urs celebrations of the saint, Baba Mast. Majeed, a devotee, attends the urs every year. In the Sufi tradition, urs is the celebration of the death anniversary of a saint, because it is believed that after death, the devotee becomes one with her maker – God.

There is an element of gender fluidity here, too. In Sufi iconography, God is presented as a husband, while a devotee yearns for her beloved as an estranged wife, longing to be with him. Consider the following lines by 13th-century iconic Sufi poet, Baba Farid Ganjshukar:

I did not sleep with my love tonight

And every bit of my body aches.

Go ask the deserted ones,

How they pass their nights.

“The canal that you crossed while coming to the shrine serves as the boundary. The same pilgrims who are respectful to the transgender here become rude towards them once they cross the canal,” says Majeed.

Majeed tells us the story of the shrine. Baba Mast was the oldest son of Syed Akbar Ali Shah, also a saint. During his lifetime, Shah appointed Baba Mast, whose real name was Khawaja Abdul Aziz, as his spiritual descendant. Baba Mast was particularly fond of the transgender community. He often said that after his death, he would ask Allah why he created them the way that he did. Why were they punished? Why didn’t anyone love them?

Majeed tells us that every year, on the occasion of his father’s urs, Baba Mast would invite several members of the transgender community and encourage them to dance and play music here. However, one of his brothers, Ghulam Mustafa Shah, abhorred the practice. “He was a religious fundamentalist,” says Majeed. Once, while Baba Mast was away Ghulam Mustafa asked all the transgender people to leave his father’s shrine, as he thought that their presence defiled its sanctity. When Baba Mast returned he gathered all of them and took the festivities of the urs to the canal.

“There was no one left at the shrine. It had lost its flair,” Majeed says. “Ghulam Mustafa was left with no other option but to urge Baba Mast to return. With him came back the transgender people, the music and dance. Now, every year, thousands from the transgender community gather at this shrine and pay homage to a saint that gave them love in a world that derides them.”

I leave the shrine and its urs celebration with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I wanted to believe what Majeed had told me – that they were respected here. However I am also aware of the fact that this shrine and its festival are located within a larger context – one in which members of the transgender community are ridiculed, shunned and sexually exploited. It is a context in which a 23-year-old transgender activist, Alisha, is shot in Peshawar, and doctors waste precious minutes arguing if she would be taken to the male or female ward.

No matter how much respect transgender people command at this shrine, neither they nor their male patrons can escape the cultural context that forms the basis of their interaction, even here.

Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: A study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: A journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities