Alumna Explores Pakistan's Trans Women in New Film

Hira Humayun '17 Assistant Features Editor

At the Kahn Institute’s 15th anniversary celebration in the Campus Center Carroll room on Feb. 10, tables adorned with blue and grey tablecloths, vases of orchids and sparkling apple cider in wine glasses were set out for a screening of the film “Transgenders: Pakistan’s Open Secret,” followed by a question-and-answer session with the film’s Academy award-winning director and producer Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy ’02.

Kahn Institute fellows, alumnae, students and professors, semi-formally dressed, were present. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy was called via Skype and the video was projected on the large screen in the room. The current Kahn Institute director, Professor Nalini Bushan, introduced the keynote speaker and Kahn Institute alumna, saying, “Who better to be the keynote speaker than the illustrious Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy?”

Former Kahn Institute director Professor Rick Fantasia formally introduced Chinoy. He spoke about her idea for a film project which flowed out of a Kahn Institute project. Explaining his tight budget, he said, “It was probably the best gamble of my life.” He explained how Chinoy went on to make many more films about struggles and possibilities in the Middle East and South Asia, mostly focusing on women. Her accolades include an Oscar, an Emmy and numerous journalism awards.

“It was the Kahn Institute that launched my career,” said Chinoy as Fantasia concluded his address. The filmmaker gave a brief introduction to the film, saying it was “a real eye-opener” and one of her personal favorites, as she aimed to shed light upon the struggles of the transgender community in Pakistan. For Chinoy, the film shattered stereotypes and “provided marginalized groups with a voice.”

The film began with clips of trans women walking around various areas in Karachi, Pakistan, interspersed with clips of citizens of the city giving their opinions about them. The film followed the stories of three trans women, their daily struggles, their backgrounds and their aspirations. The film probed into the transgender commune system, a collective living arrangement for trans women disowned by their families. Often, gurus – older, experienced trans women – take novice trans women under their wing and force them into prostitution and begging. Some of the trans women traced their struggles regarding their jobs as sex workers and the consequential rapes or STDs they suffered. Chinoy’s film also highlighted the struggle these women faced searching for safer careers and ended with one of them landing a job as a tax collector.

After the film, Chinoy was called again to take questions from the audience.  “How did you manage to build so much trust with your subjects?” asked Ayla Ahmed ’15. Sharmeen explained that she spent two months bonding with the subjects “without even putting the camera on.” She explained that she aimed to shed light upon their struggles and who they were as people so that an audience could connect with them. “They had to trust me in order to get the kind of access I got,” she said.

As the questions continued, she explained how some of the younger trans women in communes wanted to break out of the system because it was based on prostitution. She described this film as “opening up a world that is hidden.”

The event received positive feedback from some who attended. “It was organized really well. The Kahn Institute seemed to have put in a lot of effort. The film was eye opening, and opened up the idea for the possibility of eventual progress for the transgender community in Pakistan,” Sidney Lu ’17 said.

“We really wanted this to be a special event,” Professor Bushan said. She explained that when they found out Chinoy could not be at the event in person, the organizers scrambled to find a solution and eventually settled on Skype as an alternative. “The Q and A session was rich and deep,” she remarked. “It was a smashing success.”