IT is hardly surprising that transgender rights activist Hina Shahzadi filed a legal petition in Lahore recently against torture and harassment faced by her community. Excluded, marginalised and often victims of violence, Pakistan’s trans citizens dream of a day when their existence is not, at best, tolerated but also celebrated. Their struggle espouses a right so fundamental that most non-trans/cisgender persons take it for granted: that of a self-perceived identity. For trans Pakistanis, each day is a reminder of this deprivation. Fallen from grace, they are the ‘Kalu Bhangi’ of our time; dehumanised, abused and, perhaps worse, abandoned by their own loved ones.
Yet the oppression may largely be a colonial hangover. Pre-19th-century India, in fact, venerated the khwajasira both in imperial courts and through a rich tradition of theatrical transvestism. But as British rule expanded, the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, ordained criminality on them by virtue of their ‘deviant’ transgender identity. The same act was re-invoked by Ayub Khan to ban all their activities.
Research I conducted on trans Pakistanis in 2017 highlighted their experiences of growing up in a country with virtually no concept of gender diversity and fluidity. Respondents described an awareness of feeling ‘trapped’ in bodies alien to their identities from a very early age, of hiding and cross-dressing as a form of resistance. The economic costs, too, are huge; forced to live dual lives until they are either cast out by their families or break free themselves, trans persons are effectively prohibited from returning to claim their inheritances for fear of being killed by their families.
In private and in public, trans Pakistanis are ostracised and excluded.
This ordeal follows them outside the domestic and into the public sphere. Trans children are ostracised and bullied by their fellows at school. In hospitals, doctors refuse to treat them, or harass them by asking irrelevant and inappropriate questions. Remember Alisha, a trans activist who was shot eight times in Peshawar? She died after doctors wasted valuable time deciding which ward to place her in. Their crisis is amplified by a complete absence of vital gender-neutral infrastructure such as hospital wards and polling booths. Cut off from family wealth and with little access to education, no political voice and other resources, most trans Pakistanis have limited avenues for survival.
These obstacles characterise another social enigma: the streams of genders present and yet actively obliterated from our collective consciousness. Specifically for trans men, oppression comes in multiple, layered dimensions. A patriarchal society like ours may tolerate masculine behaviour by a person appearing to be/ dressed as female; however, a ‘man’ exhibiting feminine behaviour will be actively derided and labelled ‘effeminate’. This social construct of masculinity forces most trans men to hide their true identities, compromising their emotional and mental health.
There have been some recent positives for trans Pakistanis. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018, marks the culmination of years of political, judicial and social landmarks including empowerment, access to education and sustenance, and the court-ordered provision of CNICs and inclusion of non-binary genders on registration forms. The act now defines gender identity as “a person’s innermost and individual sense of self as male, female or a blend of both or neither; that can correspond or not to the sex assigned at birth”.
Yet, trans Pakistanis are primarily represented by the khwajasira community. They are mainly trans women from the guru-chela culture, which is its own paradox of an oppressive safety net and actively excludes trans women who refuse to accept its impositions. Media and art forms have also largely failed to account for any other genders. Gender dysphoria — a condition in which a person’s assigned sex at birth does not align with their gender identity — is completely absent from mainstream narratives, and the only visibility of trans persons is stereotypical representations of the khwajasira.
We have made some legal progress, but are still lacking in implementation. In last year’s general election, for example, the ECP in its candidate nomination forms provided only two gender categories despite the federal law and a court order, and trans candidates and voters were repeatedly threatened and barred from exercising their electoral rights. Recent legal gains and increased visibility has corresponded with an uptick of attacks on trans persons across the country.
Pakistan’s transgender population are entitled to protection and affirmation of their rights. This requires not just strong political will but also unbiased, sensitised implementation of the law to ensure they can lead safe and secure lives as average citizens in the same system as everyone else — a right they have been denied for far too long.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2019