Jhang- As soon as the wedding party ended, Madam Boota, a transgender person who earned her living as a birthday and marriage dancer, left for home. She was just a few yards away from her residence in Jahangiri Bazaar of the old Jhang city area, when a man emerged from a dark alley and grabbed her. Thinking her a woman in the darkness, he began to grope her.
“I cried out for help. When he heard my voice, he fled, but that incident turned my life upside down,” said Arif alias Madam Boota, now vying as an independent candidate from the PP-78 Jhang-11 constituency in the upcoming by election.
“We do not have the luxury of streetlights in our area and the darkness gives predators the opportunity to attack girls. My ordeal worked as a catalyst; I made up my mind to do something for my people, my area,” she explained.
The constituency was previously vacated due to the disqualification of PML (N) MPA Rashida Yaqoob by the Supreme Court on an application filed by Maulana Muhammad Ahmad Ludhyanvi, chief of Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ) for concealing her financial assets.
The by election is set to take place on December 1 and currently, 32 candidates including Arif alias Madam Boota, the disqualified MPA Rashida Yaqoob, Maulana Ludhyanvi and Sheikh Shiraz Akram, son of MNA Sheikh Akram have submitted their nomination papers.
Despite being part of a community ridiculed by the majority of Pakistanis as "hijra", a slang word used for all intersex people, Madam Boota found the courage to contest the election for a particularly honourable reason.
“I know the chances of my winning the election are very thin but I still want to contest. The fact that a hijra wants to change the fate of this area might awaken the ghairat (honour) of the big names in the running to do something for this town,” she said.
“Death chases pregnant women in these dark and dirty streets,” she continued. “ Children get sick due to the unhygienic environment. I de-silt the sewerage lines with my own hands every day.”
“I am not doing this for power,” she explained. “I was born alone and I’ll die alone. I have collected some money to perform Umrah, but before going on this blessed journey, I want to do something special for my area and its people.”
While Madam Boota talked to The Nation, half a dozen children gathered at the door of her room, asking if they could do anything for her.
“I have the prayers of innocent souls with me. These kids pray for me. The animals of this area pray for me. When the kids lose their ball, I get them a new one. I feed the hungry dogs and cats. They remember me too,” she said.
With a pet dog and a goat, Madam Boota lives alone in the shabby room, deep inside the narrow streets of old Jhang. Her parents and a sister passed away a decade ago and now her brother and his five sons are her only family.
Imran, one of Madam Boota’s nephews, claimed that a large number of people were willing to support her in the election.
“She wants to give clean and illuminated streets to the residents. She dreams of a green park and a school for the children of this area. She is a malang and a large number of followers are with her,” he said.
In Jahangiri Bazaar, the campaign was well underway.
An office bearer of PML (N) Jhang city chapter, who introduced himself as Malik Asghar, told The Nation that he considered Madam Boota a serious candidate and supported her instead of his party’s candidate.
“We’ve tried them all, from Bibi Rashida Yaqoob to babas (ASWJ clerics). They’ve ruined our town and we’re highly disappointed. I demand my party grant the ticket to Madam Boota this time,” he said.
Muhammad Mujahid, a fruit vendor, was of the opinion that out of the 32 candidates, Madam Boota was the only one without greed for money.
“She grew up with us,” he said. “We’re campaigning for her and we’ll get her elected come what may.”
Sitting on his meat stall in crowded Jahangiri Bazaar, Muhammad Tauqeer, had a different opinion.
“She is a fun candidate. She is catching the public’s attention and she’ll get media coverage. But she cannot win the election,” he said, adding that the PML (N) candidate would be elected.
Although a great deal of citizens seemed to endorse Madam Boota, ironically the transgender community has refused to support her as its candidate.
Talking to The Nation, Madam Shahana Shani, Punjab Coordinator for Ittehad Baraye Huqooq-e-Khawaja Sira (Alliance for the Rights of Intersex People), said the transgender community would not back Madam Boota.
“She did not consult the community before filing her nomination,” she said. “We’ll support the PTI candidate as it is a new and progressive party.”
She went on to regret that intersex people were discarded by society including their families, turning them into an alienated community.
“I salute the Supreme Court for giving us an identity. Since then there is a positive change. We’re coming out of isolation. At least seven transgender candidates contested the 2013 general elections, though none could win,” she said.
In 2011, the Supreme Court of Pakistan permitted members of the transgender community to obtain national identity cards as a “third gender,” alongside issuing direction for the registration of their votes.
According to Madam Shani, there are 500,000 transgender Pakistanis and no quota for them in government jobs or legislative institutions.
“We demand reserved seats in the senate, national and provincial assemblies so that we can sensitise legislators towards our issues,” she said, though she continued to maintain she would not support Madam Boota on December 1st.