It was only after Neeli Rana and the rest of the ‘party’ were beaten blue during a ceremony that she vowed to turn to activism.
“We were at an event somewhere in Lahore,” she recalls. “The night was going fine until an argument started about whether we should next dance to a Punjabi song or an Indian song. In this confusion someone started playing an Indian song, and we began dancing to change the subject. The next thing we knew we were being punched and kicked all over!”
Neeli says they were dragged out by their hair.
“We shouted, ‘Please! We are only here to dance!’ but they just would not stop beating us up!”
The men were not only drunk on liquor but on power, too.
The whole night, this group of transgender women who had been invited to add to the festivities, were instead locked in a room, and beaten black and blue.
Amid rampant discrimination towards minorities, Pakistan passed one of the most progressive laws in the region to recognise and protect transgender persons. This is the story of how that came about and how victims became activists...
The matter eventually ended and they all went home bruised and heartbroken. But Neeli stewed in anger, for days and days, and many sleepless nights, too.
The transgender community of Pakistan faces all kinds of violence and discrimination from society, every day in any given place. In the days when their singing and dancing was more common, such incidents were common, too.
Today, because of such violence associated with these events, many have stopped dancing especially in front of strangers. For those engaged in sex work, the sexual violence is even worse.
But not all trans people are limited to this kind of work. Most of the time they are vulnerable simply because they are who they are: different from the majority of society.
In the recent past, constant pressure for recognition and protection has ended up in many members of the transgender community becoming mainstream names for activism. Their first major achievement came when they became officially “recognised” as a third gender in 2009, as per the directive of then Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Chaudhry. Since then the path to finally pushing for a Bill to be enacted has been hard work.
Understandably, there was great cause for celebration when the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018 was approved and passed by the National Assembly. Those who had worked hard for it could not believe their ears when they heard the news. Finally, they too could live like humans.
But the struggle has been long and arduous. Some completed the journey, some never even reached halfway. Others made deep realisations within themselves. And more than often, the reasons for all of these was the fact that they led unhappy lives, away from a biological family who had disowned them at a young age for being different.
For people who have been deprived of parental love, their adopted families are everything. Neeli says the night she was beaten up, something inside her changed.
“From that moment on, I stopped being insulated from the community’s problems,” she says. “I wanted to give up dancing and work as an activist from then on. I had begun seeing the others’ [her community’s] problems as my own.”
Slowly, she began taking things into her hands. Everytime she heard of the police harassing her fellow community members, she would gather a throng of protesters and march to the police station to fight for their release. Sometimes it worked. At other times, news of the incident reached her when it had already taken place, and the police had either beaten up a khwajasirah or even raped her.
For a khwajasirah or transgender person, violence and discrimination is something they have experienced since childhood. From early years, when family members push for their male child to adopt more boyish ways rather than playing with dolls, or as in Neeli’s case, when she saw her father playing with all her siblings except her, a sense of ostracisation settles in. Ignored in childhood, the boy is later shown aggression for not conforming to the norms.
“My father was cruel to me,” recalls Goshi, taking a long drag on her cigarette as she speaks. “When I used to go outside there was a lot of hooting and name calling and they called me ‘khussra’ [often a derogatory term] openly. When my brothers heard this, they beat me and said I should stay at home.”
Even when they are thrown out of their homes or run away, they learn to live life dodging threats, and learning how to size up the people they meet. But more than often, despite the level of bullying they face, the attitude of the khwajasirah community has been to ignore these incidents, however injured it leaves them. These were the norms when Neeli started out as an activist, defending the lives and security of other transgender women.
Today, in contrast, the transgender community lives with much more hope than before, even though they are still faced with a large number of violent incidents and harassment. But unlike before, many more members of the transgender community have not only chosen to ‘come out’ confidently but have also decided to raise their voices against injustice. With the passing of the Transgender Act this year, a door of hope has been opened: a new future is entirely possible.
Without a doubt, the trans community in Pakistan exists on the margins of society. But the transgenders have been part of the subcontinent’s history for centuries and enjoyed far better fortunes than today’s poverty.
Historically the transgender community comprised hijrras, eunuchs, Kothis, Aravanis, Jogappas, Shiv-Shakthis, etc. Records show that eunuchs have existed at since since the ninth century BC. The word ‘eunuch’ has roots in Greek and means ‘keeper of the bed’ — castrated men were in popular demand to guard women’s quarters of royal households. Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism — and it can be inferred, Vedic culture — all recognised three genders.
“In the Mughal era, khwajasirahs served as army generals, harem guards and advisers to emperors and queens,” says activist Mehlab Jameel.“It was with the onset of British rule and the fragmentation of the Mughal courts, where ‘hijrras’ [as they were referred to] who were given so much respect, were soon stripped of their powerful positions and no longer participated in government. In fact, the British Raj tried to get rid of whomever they held in ‘breach of public decency.’”
Accounts by early European travellers show that they were repulsed by the sight of hijrras. They could notunderstand why they were given so much respect in the royal courts and other institutions. Then, in the second half of the 19th century, the British colonial administration went so far as to criminalise the hijrra community and denied them their civil rights.
“Hijrras were considered to be a separate caste or tribe in different parts of India by the colonial administration,” says Mehlab. “In 1871, the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) came and the hijrras were labelled as criminals, who kidnapped and castrated children. This mindset prevails even today.”
The punishment for the ‘crimes by hijrras’ was up to two years imprisonment and a fine or both. The hijrras were also subject to compulsory registration, strict monitoring and stigmatised.
Jessica Hinchy, who has done extensive research on the transgenders of South Asia says in one of her papers, “From the 1850s, British officials in North India claimed that the region faced a criminal ‘system’ of eunuchs who were addicted to sodomy, worked as prostitutes and kidnapped and forcibly castrated children.”
“Following the passage of Part II of the CTA in 1871, police registered eunuchs who were ‘reasonably suspected’ of sodomy, kidnapping and castration. The CTA particularly targeted hijrras: malebodied emasculates or ‘eunuchs by birth’ who adopted feminine clothing and, in many cases, female names. Hijrras had a social role as performers and alms-collectors, particularly at times associated with fertility such as childbirth. Often, hijrras lived with other hijrras in households that were structured by lineages of gurus and chelas [disciples], through which knowledge of hijrra cultural and embodied practices was transmitted.”
The prevailing thought was that (criminal) behaviour was hereditary rather than learned and, therefore, crimes became part of a certain ethnic community. This is a mindset that exists even today. Besides the hijrras, all those who defied the British way of ‘civilised living’, including gypsies and others who lived on the fringes were also declared criminals. Thuggees, too, comprised a major part of the law but some researchers believe it is mainly because they took part in the 1857 war against the British.
It is this pre-Partition history which influences the vulnerable circumstances of hijrras in today’s world.
It isn’t like we were invisible,” says Jannat Ali. “When there were crimes against us, we could not report them, and when we needed something from the state, we could not ask for it.
A Long and silent struggle
Even though the British are long gone, the ideas drilled in by them remain.
While the Transgender Act 2018, displaces the status of transgender people in the CTA 1871, a lot needs to be changed in order to make long-term social changes.
Elders of the khwajasirah community attest that though there was never any ‘collective movement’ for their rights, there was always a resistance against the status quo in some way or the other.
“It was not always consciously advocated as ‘rights’ when we worked on these issues,” says community elder Laila Naz, a delicate, soft-spoken khwajasirah who tells her story.
Attacked twice by men, Laila tried to find her way in life. Her first attacker approached her at an event where she was dancing, and said he wanted to have sexual relations with her. When she refused, the drunk man shot at her.
“I begged someone to take me to the hospital, because I was losing blood fast,” she says. “But they refused. Finally I reached a hospital at around 4 am, but the discrimination was such that they did not let me have an emergency operation to get the bullets out until two o’ clock in the afternoon.”
Her second attacker was a man who professed that he was madly in love with her and wanted to marry her but she refused. In a fit of temper, he threw scalding water on her legs, which left her bedridden for a long time. She couldn’t dance very well after that. Later, after her guru contracted HIV and died, she resorted to begging. One day, she stumbled upon the office of HIV activist Shukriya Gul, who had an NGO for HIV awareness called Saathi Foundation.
“When Shukriya heard my story, especially that of my guru dying from HIV, she became interested in hiring me as a field worker,” says Laila. “So I began my struggle in spreading awareness about using protection to the khwajasirahs by visiting their deras [gurus’ residences], but none of them accepted it. The sex workers especially rejected the use of protection saying that their clients said, ‘it was like wading in water with socks on.’”
While Laila worked to spread awareness of HIV, she also saw that a major problem her community faced was not having any ID cards. The fact that their identity was never even taken into consideration, nor recognised, left them occasionally conflicted, in terms of legalities and even as existing citizens.
“How can you treat so many of your citizens as if they don’t exist?” asks Jannat Ali, a performing artist and one of the main activists who brought about the Act. “It isn’t like we were invisible. When there were crimes against us, we could not report them, and when we needed something from the state, we could not ask for it. We literally had no identity except among ourselves.”
In 2009, the Supreme Court gave recognition to a third gender and ordered that they be given computerised national identity cards (CNICs).
“I am eternally thankful to former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry who gave these directives,” says Ashi Butt. Butt, who proudly claims that her ID card name is ‘Nusratara Ashi’, lives in Lahore’s Old City in a cramped two-room upper portion with a fellow transgender, Tariq, whom she occasionally admonishes. He was kicked out of his home when he was young and while he is in his 30s now, he has the brain of an eight-year-old, she says. She keeps Tariq under her own protection, though. This protective instinct, and the fact that finding a home for a transperson is close to impossible, is what led Ashi to be one of the most prominent transgender activists around.
Ashi says she belonged to a well-off political family whose name she doesn’t want to disclose. But even though she had money to spend, her reality check came when she was at a hospital and heard that the body of a ‘khussra’ had come in with no family to accept.
She begins to sob as she recounts seeing that young khwajasirah, who had been lying dead in a back alley since a few days.
“It haunts me to think of how much pain, hunger or loneliness he must have died in,” she says, wiping the tears off her face. “To top it off, none of his family were there to even bury him. I told the doctors to give the body to me, that I was his family. I had to pay them, of course.”
Ashi then began thinking about the elders in her community.
“They were the most vulnerable because they had retired and some of them did not have anybody who could earn for them. Many of them were homeless. I collected donations from influential people — businessmen, whose wives and daughters were friends, political people who I knew because of my family, and also those people whose houses I used to dance at. I was even friends with local ‘badmash’ Gogi Butt.”
Today Ashi runs the Bayghar Foundation or ‘Home for the Homeless’ in Rachna Town, Shahdra, at the outskirts of Lahore. Completed in 2011, it is a shelter for the destitute transgender community, on a one-kanal plot, complete with CCTV.
“There are so many who are suffering from HIV and there are those who have no family and no ID cards so they can’t get any housing on their own. Most of the inhabitants are over 50.”
Like Laila, Ashi too is well aware of the pandemic of HIV thanks to used needles among drug users or even those at third-rate clinics, or the use of unsterilized razors. “People think we contract HIV only because we are sexually promiscuous when there are so many different reasons,” she says. “But it’s been growing because of lack of awareness. In 2017 alone, I know that 13 trans persons died of HIV.”
Neeli Rana claims that in Kot Momin near Sargodha, half of the village’s inhabitants are HIV positive while in another village, Jalalpur Jatta in Gujrat, most of the people have HIV. “Why doesn’t the government talk about things that matter?” she asks. “Instead, it took them ages to realise the stupidity of a medical examination to determine our gender?”
She is referring to the process of attaining an ID card after the 2009 court orders. It was demeaning and humiliating to subject themselves to a medical committee which would ascertain whether the person was a khwajasirah man or woman.
It enrages her to no end.
“Why should we make ourselves a picture of ridicule by having our bodies examined to tell us our identity?” Neeli asks. “And has any man or woman ever been asked for a medical examination to prove that they are what they are?”
There is even a myth that there are men out there who act like transgenders. For Sarah Gill, who belongs to the younger generation, that is a joke. “I would like to see which man would want to dress up as a woman and be called ‘Baji’ out on the streets,” she snorts contemptuously.
Neeli argues, “Why must we open our legs to show what’s there, when they should be looking up here for who we are?” she asks tapping her temple. “For khwajasirahs, it is a question of gender, rather than genitalia.”
In 2017, Babar Awan presented a bill for the rights of transgenders in the National assembly. This, being a direct copy of the Indian Bill however, was shot down and it was deemed that some of the cultural references could not be applied in Pakistan.
Because no one was engaged in the drafting of the bill, the federal ombudsman directed all four provinces to submit their versions of a bill for transgender rights.
“It was at this point that some people became involved with the drafting of the bill at the top level, and they usually had their meetings in air-conditioned rooms, with complete disconnect from the grassroots level,” explains Jannat. “At first we had no idea of this, but when we got to know that this was happening in Islamabad, we instantly began work on drafting a new bill from scratch.”
While Jannat’s trans activist friends were ready to help, what was even more surprising was the input by women.
“Women have been fighting patriarchy all their lives but this was the first time that women and transgender community members came together against the common problem of patriarchy,” says Sarah Suhail, a gender expert. Suhail is also part of a space called the Feminist Collective which she claims has always been ‘trans-inclusive’.
“When we found out about what was happening in the assembly and a UN-based organisation, which mostly revolves around an elitist representation of the problem, we thought we should intervene. And while the law gives a lot of rights to the transgender community we have achieved a milestone in that, through this law, everyone can identify themselves and there is no need for any medical committee.”
The word transgender, too, does not limit itself to the transgender women or khwajasirah women that are usually visible on the streets, but also transgender men (those born women but who identify with being male inside), intersex persons (those with different genitalia) and all other forms of genders.
“It is used in the Act as an umbrella term which clears a lot of confusion,” says Advocate Sabahat Rizvi, also part of the bill drafting group. “A UN-based organisation working on transgender community wanted a law separately for the intersex persons but eventually we decided to use one word.”
Transgender activists nationwide were put in charge of data collection within a matter of days. In Lahore, the group comprising Suhail and Jannat Ali, among others, visited all the deras of Lahore and its outskirts.
“For the very first time, we collected information from the grassroots level about the needs and basic problems of the trans community,” says Mehlab. “I remember asking them what they wanted in the bill, and the lack of awareness was to such an extent that they thought we were talking about their utility bills!”
“I remember I was ready to faint in the heat while fasting,” says Jannat. “But the pride we felt after the bill was passed was irreplaceable.”
Despite a little protest from a couple of religious right-wing members of the assembly, the bill was passed and is now an Act.
A new dawn
In a country where harassment, danger and discrimination towards transgender people is prevalent, this law comes as a landmark decision.
In interviews with trans people, one main concern surfaced: there had always been a huge gap in identity and expectations because of a lack of legal recognition of gender — and gender that they wanted to define themselves.
Transgender people say that it is important to be able to exercise the right to legal recognition of themselves and only through a definition and expression that is not enforced on them by the state. They feel these are basics of dignity and freedom.
In fact it is extremely important to their sense of self esteem that they can define their own selves. In this regard, Pakistan’s law has been open about defining themselves the way they want.
Obviously through the law, human rights are being enforced by the state to a large extent, although societal problems of acceptance and discrimination still occur. Most importantly the law is a crucial step for achieving a number of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) including gender equality and ensuring healthy lives.
In most Asian countries, transgender people do not have legal access, especially to gender recognition and, therefore, to other related aspects — either because no such provisions exist in their countries or due to practical limitations in implementations of court judgments or parliamentary decisions.
A UNDP report from 2017 says that across Asia most transgender people do not have legal access because no such provisions exist in their country.
But in some parts of this region, there has been significant progress. In Pakistan, India and Nepal, it was brought about through Supreme Court directives.
Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan have recognised the third gender on specific documents, but mostly implementation measures have been inconsistent. India is the only South Asian country, according to the UNDP report, whose Supreme Court decision affirms transgender people’s rights to identify as male, female or as a third gender identity. However, eligibility criteria are still imposed through administrative practices. This includes requiring evidence of gender-affirming surgeries in order to amend details on a passport.
Nepal’s commitment to third gender recognition is embedded in its constitution, and is gradually being rolled out across a range of government documents. It remains, however, focused solely on a third gender identity, with no option for transgender women to be recognised as female or transgender men to be recognised as male.
In this regard, the Pakistani law is the most ‘generous.’
Slowly, though, progress is being made. It will take a long time for Pakistan to become free of any kind of discrimination and violence towards not just transgender people, but also women, but when solid laws are present, there is more than a ray of hope.
The writer is a member of staff.
She tweets @XariJalil
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 23rd, 2018