East meets West

It was appropriate to include a Muslim perspective in this week’s 4thought.tv series which is asking the question ‘is it wrong to change gender?’  Shame though that last night’s speaker, Pav Akhtar, is not Trans himself, like the other people in the series.

Pav is a courageous man – he and Lord Ali are reputed to be the only two out gay Muslim politicians in the world. But he is not a Trans person, as far as I am aware, and the great strength of this week, whatever people might think of the points of view expressed, has been seeing Trans people themselves, and hearing our take on this question – which after all affects us most – rather than other people’s opinions about us.

My guess is that Pav’s appearance in front of the camera means that no Trans Muslim came forward to be interviewed, and that to be Muslim and Trans is even more taboo in his community than to be Muslim and gay.

In the interview (which I’ve only read reports of so far and I’ll update any of this if it proves to be incorrect) Pav argues that Trans people fare better in India and Pakistan than here in the UK, and that the East is more enlightened than the West in this respect.


It’s well-known that Trans people – somewhat surprisingly – have been accepted in Iran, whereas homosexuality is unacceptable. Pav would not have the same freedom to work for LGB and T rights in Iran as he does here in Britain. The situation there is a messy one too as it is reported that a number of lesbian and gay people have undergone gender transition in a risky attempt to legitimise their sexuality.

Pav’s point of reference is India and Pakistan where the hijras, like many third gender people across the globe, from ancient times to now, have always had a sacred role in their society. The arrival of the British, according to Pav, was detrimental to that understanding, and imposed the Western binary concept of gender. There may well be truth in this. A similar process occurred in the settling of North America, where the third and fourth gender people in native culture were initially the subject of curiosity but, eventually, Western patterns were imposed.

The sacral functions of the Hijras are still observed in India and Pakistan but they are, at the same time, social outcasts – see my recent post:


Can that be entirely due to the Western binary notion of gender? Undoubtedly it plays a part even if it is not the whole story. And while Europeans were busy obliterating or undermining gender variance across the globe, third and fourth gender people in Western culture – who have always been there – were squeezed to the margins or overlooked.

It needed something fairly powerful to achieve that, namely, colonization and industrialization which, in their early manifestations, began to demand a division of labour on gendered lines. Where women and men had worked together in cottage industries, industrialization produced more rigid gender roles, especially among the middle classes, and it was the latter who formed opinion in ‘the colonies’ – conveniently forgetting all the cross-dressing theatrical performances of their youth in single-sex boarding schools back home (or maybe they didn’t – perhaps we need some more research on this whole subject).

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