'We Are Neither Men Nor Women, but Muslims Like Anyone Else'
Siraj Wahab, Arab News
Haji Saleem (Salma)
MINA, 20 December 2007 They are neither men nor women. In their devotion to God, however, they are second to none. There are no precise figures as to how many of them are performing Haj this year but according to those who are familiar with them, they have been coming here for years. Since they list themselves as men when applying for Haj visas, there is no definite way of ascertaining their exact number. They are like a drop in the ocean here and would have gone unnoticed but for their mannerisms and the singsong way of talking.
This correspondent bumped into four eunuchs ("Aghawaat" in Arabic) here yesterday. All of them were from Bhopal in India. They were a bit shy initially but were later more than eager to narrate their story of the pilgrimage. One of them, Haji Saleem, identified himself as the group's leader and he did most of the talking. The others nodded their heads, affirming their leader's statements.
"You are right, we are neither men nor women. 'Hamara dono me shumar nahi hota.' We are born this way," he said. "This is my second Haj. I was here in 1998. That is why I have added the title 'Haji' to my name. I am revered in my community and they look up to me with awe and whatever I say is taken as a command."
Back in India, however, Haji Saleem is actually known by a female name, Salma. The other three gave their names as Abdul Rasheed (better known as Mumtaz), Abdul Shabbir (Sanno) and Haji Zahoor (Zohra). They laugh and grin sheepishly when giving their actual community names. "We are known in Bhopal's Islampur-Bhudhwara area as Salma, Mumtaz, Sanno and Zohra. Those are our real names," said Haji Saleem.
Haji Saleem said they have had no problems during Haj. "Nobody bothered us nor did we bother anybody. In Makkah, however, the four of us were put up in a room with some other people. They were not comfortable with us so they asked the organizers to shift us to some other room. We were then given a separate room. Fair enough," said Haji Saleem.
Since they are neither men nor women, who do they pray with? "We respect women. That is why we don't go into their section. Islam gives us permission to pray alongside people of both sexes. For the sake of practicality and counting, we identify ourselves as men and therefore here at Haj we wear what men wear. Back home, however, we are always in women's clothing," said Haji Saleem. "Also, when we die we are given the last body wash by men. That is also a key reason for us to be counted among men rather than women."
What does Islam say concerning eunuchs and the pilgrimage? Prominent scholar and Arab News' Islamic Affairs Editor Adil Salahi said: "If the eunuch is a man who has been castrated, all the rulings concerning men apply to him. If it is a question of a person being created thus, then whatever the person appears to be applies to him. If the eunuch says he is a man, or if he says he is a woman, Islam accepts this from him in things which do not give him material advantage. As far as pilgrimage, the eunuch is required to offer the pilgrimage just as everyone else. If the eunuch's form suggests he is a man, such as having hair in the face, then he is a man. If the form suggests a woman, such as having breasts, then she is a woman."
Eunuchs were once very popular and sought-after in the harems of Eastern kings. They are often mentioned in the tales of The Arabian Nights. And so one comes repeatedly across Khwaja Sara, the major domo, in the harem of the legendary monarch Haroon Al-Rashid. Eunuchs are basically castrated men and are generally considered to be harmless and innocuous with no possibility of violating the modesty of women.
According to Haji Saleem, there are 150 members of his community in Bhopal. "We all live together. We share our joys and sorrows. We are Muslims like anyone else. We pray five times a day. We don't have separate mosques. We go to the ones that every Muslim goes to. We adopt children, but only baby girls. We don't adopt baby boys. We take care of these baby girls and then marry them off. Some of them came to see us off at Bombay airport," said Haji Saleem.
Haji Saleem said that Hindus in India take good care of them. "They treat us with a lot of respect. We are invited to their homes whenever they are blessed with a baby boy. They even invite us during weddings and to celebrate the season of harvest. Their celebrations are not considered complete without our presence. We sing and dance and make merry. They give us a lot of money. We are sometimes invited to Muslim homes as well, but they treat us with contempt. They forget that we are the way we are because God's willed it that way. This is not something that is our choice. Interestingly, all of us in this community of eunuchs in Bhopal are Muslims," said Haji Saleem.
All Muslims? "Yes, even those who belong to other faiths and are born like us, when they join our community, we ask them first to embrace Islam. We make them recite the Kalima (Shahada) and they are given Muslim names."
After returning home from Haj, will they continue singing and dancing and will their lifestyle change? Haji Saleem had an interesting answer. "Those who perform Haj two times attain the status of a 'mukhia' or a guru. They are not required to wear women's clothing. They are not allowed to sing and dance. But those who have performed Haj only once will go back to their business but only after a period of two months."
Haji Saleem said he had no regrets about life. "'Hame Allah se aur zindagi se koyee shikayat nahi hai.' We have no complaints. There must be a reason why God created us this way. Science has reached such a stage that people have sex-change operations. Men become women and vice versa. We are happy the way we are."
Haji Saleem said they were extremely delighted to be here for Haj. "Of course, we are very happy. We cannot tell you how much. Yes, there were a lot of fears when we boarded the plane. But once we were here, all our worries vanished. Just the sight of the holy city and Holy Kaaba was enough to make us feel content. Our prayers are with the entire Muslim community. May Allah give every Muslim the opportunity to perform Haj and to see the glorious Kaaba."
"Aameen," said the other three eunuchs in unison.