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Omar Kasmani (Alumnus BGSMCS)

Gender off course: subjectivities amongst fakir bodies of Sehwan sharīf

Gender off course: subjectivities amongst fakir bodies of Sehwan sharīf

On the banks of the legendary Indus, set against the Kirthar mountains lies the dusty town of Sehwan - home to the most important Sufi of the region, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. Hindus, Muslims and Christians continue to revere the saint, who some believe was Shiva incarnate, for others, an antinomian ascetic who rose to the skies in the form of a falcon. Legend has it that Shivasthan as it was once known, was the centre of Shiva pilgrimage much before the Sufis arrived in the region. Today, each year, in the eighth month of the Muslim lunar calendar, an estimated million pilgrims from all across the region gather to celebrate the annual festival in the southern province of Sindh in Pakistan.

Here at the dargāh (shrine) of the ‘red Sufi’, one comes across individuals who refer to themselves as fakirs of the saint. These are no ordinary visitors in that they do not come to make everyday vows or seek ordinary favours: sons, jobs or remedies to domestic problems and illnesses. Instead, they claim to have intercessory powers.

Men, women and hermaphrodites speak of dreams and visions not only as means of initiation but of establishing, maintaining and improving their communication with the saint. Such fakirs and pīrs do not derive their positions from notions of descent or routinised charisma, as does the sayyid elite of Sehwan. Instead, they become fakirs through a rigorous process of bodily and spiritual discipline and in so doing reveal a parallel system of spiritual exchange.  

Often imagined as diametrically opposite to the man-in-the-world, the lives of fakirs, male, female and hermaphrodite at the dargāh of Sehwan sharīf suggest at best an inadequacy of categories. Characterised by a certain tension between their household responsibilities and an individual calling – a dilemma most distinct in their personal narratives – these fakirs inhabit a trans- space of familial and fakīrī worlds, one, which they frequently traverse but do not seek to stabilise. Short of renunciation, it may be argued, these fakirs produce a ‘borderland’ of difference. Preliminary data suggests that the honing of inward and outward dispositions puts within reach a distinct gender and bodily imaginary. The fakir body is in this sense, an outcome of fakīrī, and its doing, a re-orientation of the subject: a deviation off course, beyond the prescribed, exceeding the ordinary – and marked out through the embodied practices of its actors: male, female and hermaphrodite.

Relying on self-representations in biographical narratives, and participant observation of everyday practices, both within and beyond the shrine, this study aims to explore the ways in which fakirs of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sewhan sharīf, through a re-orientation of gender and bodily practices, come to articulate their subjectivities. In other words, the study documents how men, women and hermaphrodites relate to notions of body and gender in their articulation of fakīrī as a category of self.

First Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Hansjörg Dilger

Second Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Magnus Marsden

Third Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Hermann Kreutzmann