ISLAMABAD: Nadeem Kashish lives in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in NA-53, the same constituency that houses the parliament, the Supreme Court and most of the capital’s urban areas.

Last week, she filed her nomination papers for the upcoming general elections and became one of the city’s first transgender election candidates.

Kashish’s constituency is one of the most important in the country. This year, former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan and estranged PTI MNA Ayesha Gulalai attempted to file their nominations from the same seat.

But for Kashish, the election represents an opportunity to take issues facing transgender and other marginalised people to the halls of power.

“Only now, with the participation of transgender people, will democracy be complete,” she told Dawn.

Kashish was banished from home at a young age and her journey has been fraught with abuse and tragedy.

For years, she struggled to highlight the realities of life for transgender Pakistanis through a radio show on FM-99 and her organisation, the Shemale Association for Fundamental Rights (Safar).

“Transgender people continue to face poverty, unemployment, a lack of educational opportunities and safe housing. The state is only beginning to recognise trans citizens but we continue to live on the margins of society,” she said.

Disappointed with donor organisations, which she believes favour larger NGOs, Kashish decided to turn to politics. Her work as a makeup artist at a news channel allowed her special insight into the world of politicians.

“As I powder their faces, I get to whisper into the ears of some of Pakistan’s most powerful men. In the makeup room, I get to see their true faces. Bitter political rivals joke like the best of friends off-camera and once the cameras are rolling they start fighting. I thought to myself, I may have a dual gender identity but at least I don’t have a dual personality.”

With the passing of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act in May and the announcement of the date for the general elections, Kashish decided to run for office. She knew that no major political party would offer her a ticket and points out that transgender people are not mentioned in any party’s manifesto.

“A party ticket is sold for a couple of crores. Everyone knows it’s a game for rich men.”

But Ayesha Gulalai decided to offer tickets for her recently-formed faction of the PTI to four transgender candidates, including Kashish.

“I met Gulalai and could relate to her because she is just another woman who has been wronged and silenced by powerful men. She was giving us tickets without a fee,” Kashish said.

Eventually, their inability to agree on which constituency Kashish would contest from led to an amicable parting of ways and Kashish decided to contest independently. The Rs30,000 fee for filing nomination papers was a hefty sum for Kashish, who supports a household of trans women, but she managed to raise the funds.

Unlike her rivals in the constituency, Kashish’s papers were easily accepted. “I was nervous when the returning officer called me in for scrutiny. But he told me he was very happy to see a trans person running for office. He even supported me in the attestation of some of my documents and gave me the election symbol of a radio set, which I had requested. This was very encouraging and made me feel like people really do want transgender people to participate in public life.”

Kashish said she chose the radio set as her election symbol because her radio show empowered her and brought her closer to people, and fans of her show have promised to support her campaign.

“I am counting on the kindness of others for my campaign. Once I set off on this journey, I know my community will support me in things like printing banners and going door to door,” she added.

A resident of an illegal settlement on the edges of Islamabad, Kashish said she understands the true problems facing the constituency.

“There is no housing for the poor in Islamabad. The capital is 60 years old and so are the slums but they remain illegal, without sewerage system or water. I also want to raise the issue of the water shortage in the capital where wells are drying up. I won’t talk of dams, just better management,” she said.

Once in parliament, Kashish dreams of becoming the voice of the voiceless.

“My fight is for the marginalised – the women who are denied rights, those who work as sex workers, street children and minorities. These people are raped and murdered and denied access to courts.”

But for Kashish, this election is not about winning. She believes that just by stepping forward and contesting, she has already won. She called upon the people to show support for transgender candidates running for the first time in the history of the country.

“If you’re a family of five, one of you could vote for me. It may not put me in office, but it will serve as a show of support to the transgender people fighting a long painful fight for inclusion in society.”

Published in Dawn, June 25th, 2018