Enter President of the Sindh chapter of the Gender Interactive Alliance (Gia) Bindiya Rana, a transgender social worker and rights activist who decided to take the plunge and contest elections from provincial assembly seat PS-114. The constituency, also home to electables such as MQM’s Rauf Siddiqui and PML-N’s Irfanullah Marwat, includes several working-class localities of Karachi like Azam Basti, Baloch Colony and Akhtar Colony.
Click on video to enlarge and play“I looked at what all the other parties said about transgenders (TGs) in their manifestos. They referred to women and children’s rights, but there was no mention of TGs at all,” explains Rana. This is the platform that the activist is running on – the idea that someone needs to give a voice to her community. “They say they want a ‘naya’ (new) Pakistan’ – I don’t understand, where did the old Pakistan go? That’s the one we need to fix,” she adds, grinning.
It was in 2012 that transgenders were given the right to list themselves as a third gender on their CNICs. They were also promised much more.
Rana, while praising the chief justice, points out that much else is left to be done. “We were promised a community centre, we were promised medical benefits. These are still to come”. Riffee Khan, an AIDS health worker by profession, who is also the treasurer of Gia and holds two MA degrees, chimes in and says that people often ask why members of the Khawaja Sarra community resort to begging on the streets. “There’s only so much we can do,” she explains. “We are nothing in front of the government. If the government provides a vocational training centre for members of our community, then our people wouldn’t have to beg or indulge in other questionable activities.”
According to the Gia representatives, the Supreme Court order included directives for the Khawaja Sarra community to be provided free education, free health care and a community centre. As a community, since they now had CNICs, they also had access to welfare schemes like the Benazir Income Support Programme. But despite the rights they’ve won, they say the provincial welfare departments never implemented the decision which could have been a radical boost for them.
So what the transgender community wants now is the execution of promises made to them a year ago. When people like Bindiya, and Sanam (another TG candidate from Sukkur) saw that they didn’t figure in the electoral calculus of different parties who would have the power to implement, they decided to give TG voters a chance to select one of their own.
Zehrish, another transgender activist and health worker who is currently completing her MA from Karachi University, emphasises how it’s not just about general apathy on the part of political parties, but also about the systematic discrimination faced within the education system by Khwaja Sarras. “If Bindiya wins, she must focus on the education system,” she says, adding, “because of our appearance, we face discrimination and can’t survive in the education system … Even now; sometimes my teachers say get out of class.”
One change that Zehrish seriously requests is that on forms for entry into educational institutions, an option for a third gender be provided so she is not forced to choose between ticking either male or female.
Who’s voting for whom?
But the unfortunate reality is that of the approximate 500,000 TGs in Pakistan, official National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) documents state that there are a mere 687 people registered as transgender voters in the final electoral rolls. It isn’t clear why voter registration has turned out to be significantly low – Gia says many transgenders are still waiting on CNICs and are still registered as males.
Nadra spokesperson Naz Shoeb, however, says “Considering eunuchs an equal citizen of Pakistan, No medical proof is required for their registration as is in the case of men and women. Facility of registration is open for all without any discrimination of class, creed or gender throughout Pakistan.” She adds that in September and October, Nadra in collaboration with the Election Commission of Pakistan set up special registration centres for eunuchs at the offices of the provincial and district election commissioners but that there was a need for mobilisation through media and civil society to encourage voter enrollment.
Candidates like Bindiya, however, represent the interests of people far beyond the Khwaja Sarras. “The people in my constituency who approached me – I’m running for them and their struggles,” she declares. Significantly, she says, this includes a large number of people who are not transgenders and who asked her personally to stand in the elections. “When people have had issues with scarcity of water, electricity, and sub-standard medicines, or when they have an issue with the local police, for example if their child gets picked up, they come to us because we know how to get things done and we are always in contact with local government officials.”
The election hopeful also clarifies that her community could also vote in previous elections, but only as male voters. That is what’s different this time around. Dawn.com asked her and other Gia representatives who their community voted for previously. Laughing, Bindiya says, “I shouldn’t be saying this because I’m contesting elections. But I would say the vote was divided, 50-50, between Mohtarma (the late Benazir Bhutto) and MQM. We voted for Mohtarma because she too had the same respect for ‘peeri fakeeri’ like us. As for MQM, they are strong here. If you go to their local offices here, your problems get solved.”
Long road ahead
The biggest hurdle for people like Bindiya and Sanam in being elected is that as representatives of a community that’s only approximately 500,000 strong, they can’t bring in the numbers from one constituency alone. Riffee explains that she can’t vote for Bindiya because she is not registered in the same constituency, as per Pakistan’s election system. “If only we had the right to vote from any constituency for our candidate … we would be able to have someone represent us in Parliament.”
In this unfortunate scenario, the Gia treasurer adds that she would vote for whoever she thinks will work for her community. She points out that besides making education accessible for Khwaja Sarras, there needs to be a conscious attempt to spread awareness about her community through the school curriculum. “Khwaja Sarras have participated in, and won, wars. There must be a lesson in history books which should help people understand that we too contribute to society. Although, much of the discrimination (in society) has been reduced, a whole lot more needs to be done.”
She says that the government could create a vocational training institute that would allow for transgenders to be beauticians, tailors or chefs. This would provide them with a profession and take them off the streets. Saima Farhan, another member of the transgender community, adds shyly: “We can do a lot if given the chance.”
But Bindiya’s concluding message is a more universal one. She is a passionate defender of transgender rights, but the message she has is for everyone, irrespective of gender: “Give your vote, but not because someone gave you biryani, or money, or made a lengthy speech. Your one vote can decide whether a good person wins or loses.” When asked what she thought her chances of winning were, she calmly said: “I already won the day I was able to file nomination papers. That was my victory.”