Date of Award

June 2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Susan S. Wadley


Activism, Deception, Identity, Sexuality, Stigma, Transgender

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


In 2009, the Pakistani Supreme Court began granting rights to gender ambiguous people who are locally known as khwaja siras. The Court organized this population into taxonomic groups and ordered the government to `mainstream' them. These actions were based on certain cultural assumptions and occurred amid uncertainties about who khwaja siras really were. Meanwhile, khwaja siras began to mobilize in an effort to control their public image. Based on fourteen months of ethnographic fieldwork on the identity politics of khwaja siras in Karachi, this dissertation seeks to understand the ways in which gender ambiguous people constructed, negotiated and represented themselves both within their social networks and in the wider society, as well as the factors underpinning their public portrayals. I conceive khwaja sira politics as a `game', that is, as the art of manipulation and concealment. I argue that the games of secrecy and deception in which this minority population engaged were responses to the stigma they experienced in everyday life.

Khwaja sira relationships with the general public were strategic game-like interactions that were meant to conceal knowledge, misrepresent gender variant people, and confuse opponents. They allowed khwaja siras to maintain ambiguity about their corporeality, conceal their sexualized lifestyle, and seek inclusion into mainstream society. These everyday forms of agency and deceit emerged on a larger scale and in far more sophisticated ways in the realm of activism. However, social stigma was so pervasive that it permeated into the khwaja sira cultural system, impacting the self-esteem of its members and triggering identity wars between them. These fissures were replicated within activist spaces where they often stifled efforts to empower khwaja siras. The games of secrecy and deception that gender variant people played both facilitated and undermined their movement. These empowering and conscious acts of self preservation enhanced their security within an oppressive social environment. However, khwaja sira politics did not promote understanding of gender and sexual difference. These provisional solutions perpetuated ambiguity about khwaja siras, temporarily grazing the surface of their struggles without promoting long-term stigma reduction.


Open Access