The Colonial Choreography of Queer Value

Queer Asia | Essay Prize, Runner-up

Sara Shroff looks at recent third-gender legalization in postcolonial Pakistan within contemporary Islamic capitalism through a theorization of capital.

Hailed as “progressive” politics, third gender legalization is illustrative of global discourses around gender justice and sexual citizenship. From pre-colonial gender transgressors to “colonial convicts”, Pakistan’s gender non-conforming individuals, referred to as hijras/khwajasaras in post-colonial Pakistan are being positioned as “trans-normal” economic citizens. This compels us to ask: how do co-constructions of sexuality and capital serve as colonial speculations and “murderous inclusions”?

Marx describes capital as value in motion. So then we can define precarious capital as “queer value” in motion. Queering capital allows us to reveal the instability and incompleteness of capital as a colonial choreography of control. In other words, the movement of value is located within its performativity and precarity. Constructed through a hierarchy of race, gender and sexuality, this system undergirds our capitalist valuation matrix. Subject to classification, bodies vacillate between value hierarchies – disposability (non-value), livability (possibly valuable), and marketability (value par excellence). It is this precise manufacturing of value through labour exploitation and wealth accumulation, as well as via property ownership, all within a strict hierarchy of race, gender and sexuality, that capital moves.

Hijra means migration.

Rooted in Islamic history, hjr marks the holy journey from Mecca to Medina and the entrance of Islam as a religio-political-cultural formation. Representing a double performance, it also denotes the beginning of the Islamic hijri calendar. Colloquially, hijra refers to South Asia’s gender-non-conforming individuals. It is an umbrella category for the plurality of genders and sexualities including but not limited to transsexuals, transgenders, enuchs, effeminate men, masculine women and intersex individuals. In this way, as hijras migrate from one beginning (biological sex) to another beginning (embodiment or expression), they remain outside fixed gender and sexual borders, and so representing a parallel departure-arrival performance. Hijras are part of the complex queer fabric of pre/post/colonial cartographies and histories of Pakistan and Islam.

Rooted in Mughal history, the more “respectable” term is khwajasara – Khwaja as a title that translates into “protector” or “honorable.” Khwajasara also infers “guardian of women”, signifying their ability to move through women-only spaces as sexually benign protectors. Within the history of the Mughal Empire and the rising spirituality of Muslim consciousness, both terms came to take on sexual, gender and political significance, embodying simultaneous reverence and rejection. Khwajasara’s ability to move through and perform genders makes them legible god-like performers and non-consequential pleasure sources. On the other hand, their illegibility also brands them as hetero-patriarchal colonial pariahs, curbing them as both exploited sex workers and fascinating grim reapers.

This marks them simultaneously as indispensable and deficient.

2009 marks a fundamental shift for Pakistani khwajasaras given recent legal recognition and media visibility. As targets of police brutality, sexual and gender violence, employment discrimination, and social stigma, this newly achieved visibility, voice and vote are no small feat. Yet these critical milestones come with their own ambiguities and anxieties within the vague yet vital frameworks of rights/recognition in which they are located.

Categorizing khwajasaras as “men” is a colonial construction of illegibility. Embodiments of condemned female sexuality and failed masculinity led to their classification as a criminal tribe, inherently immoral and corrupt in 1871. As an embodiment of gender disorder, sexual deviancy and economic aberration, and hostile to colonial/patriarchal gender order, they were discarded as unproductive capital and cast as disposable and ungrievable. Their performativity, lethal for colonialism, is being made lawful and useful for capitalism through frames of legitimacy (Islamic law) and inclusion (capitalist economics). The colonial law that cast them as “criminals” is being overturned to classify them as “legitimate” citizens owing to decades of unwavering khwajasara activism and new articulations of capital.

Capitalism needs variations of capitals and varieties of bodies as value to function. Organizing gender and sexuality as independent categories is central to colonialism and capitalism.

It is through enslaved (free), women (social reproductive), and affective (erotic, sexual, emotional) labor that capital/ism that it becomes feasible. Simply put, without racialized enslavement and gender and sexual standardization/subjugation, capital/ism fails. Khwajasaras are capitalism’s most recent contestants.

Several intersecting logics situate the contemporary gestures of khwajasara legalization. First, these gestures are a corrective measure to liberate khwajasaras from violent colonial logic and in compliance with Islamic principles. This is important because khwajasaras deploy frames of insaniyat(humanity), not conventional “human rights”. Their claims for humanity are evident in campaign slogans – “let us live too” and “we are human too”, signaling that “human” as a category and “livability” as a privilege are not afforded to all human beings equally but rather contingent upon whose lives matter and when for capitalism.

Second, through the regulatory regime of normalcy, khwajasaras are no longer abnormal but “just like us”. This is similar to the US-Europe “gay rights” movement that normalizes homosexuality and pathologizes gender. In Pakistan, however, genders are being normalized while homosexuality remains a criminal offense. The inclusionary move in both instances leaves intact the settler/colonial and hetero-patriarchal structures that denies these fluid forms in the first place.

Value is the third governing logic. Frames of livability, normality and value-ability work jointly. Khwajasara’s “superhuman” powers are now critical to economic progress but only insofar as they can be profitable (i.e. corporate workforce, state tax collectors and government bureaucrats).  As precarious capital, khwajasaras navigate violent gender borders, informal street economies and alternative familial arrangements. Now they must traverse the capitalistic orientation of trans rights as market rights.

This shift is part of a larger discourse of inclusive economics (neoliberal development and empowerment) to situate racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia not as capitalism’s original sin, but simply as bad economics.

Situating khwajasaras as already-always precarious capital exposes the commodification of non-gender conforming performativity deemed unruly for colonialism, to a new kind of impossibility within capitalism. It reveals how khwajasaras are being standardized and deployed in service of nation-making through Islamic capitalism. We must then ask, will the queerness of performativity as precarious capital migrate into new forms of non-capitalist/post-capitalist/decolonial futurities? Or will such precarious capital remain coopted by dogmatic Islamization, Islamophobia and Islamophilia in service of capitalism?

‘Queer’ Asia ran a blog contest in partnership with Zed Books on the theme of our 2017 Conference ‘Desire, Decolonisation and Decriminalisation.’ This essay is our runner up piece. It was first published on the Zed Books website.

Other blogs in this series: 

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