IT goes to the credit of gender rights leader Bindiya Rana that Pakistan is counted among the 20-odd states to have given legal recognition to the ‘third sex’ — non-binary people. They were counted in Pakistan’s 2017 census and are entitled to ID cards. Conservative Pakistan can now be regarded as enlightened in the matter of gender legalities — but not in terms of transgender people’s acceptance and inclusiveness in society.
The last census says there are 10,000 transgender persons in Pakistan. But Nayab Ali, a gender rights leader, disputes this figure. She calculates that the real strength of the transgender population is about 300,000.
To learn more, I met Bindiya Rana, president of the Gender Interactive Alliance which she founded in 2002. She has steered the GIA through thick and thin to make it the biggest and most effective organisation for gender rights in Pakistan. Bindiya continues her struggle even though she’s 70-plus, saying that she still has a long way to go to raise the status of transgender people in Pakistan.
She is not alone. Hundreds of similar groups have followed her lead. Bindiya is a master planner. Once she realised that advocacy and education were the need of the hour to push the rights-based approach, she set out to focus on designing a strategy. “I joined WAF to observe and learn from them. And I learnt how to create a mechanism to fight for our rights,” she says. In the process, she also became a member of the HRCP to strengthen her flanks.
Transgender persons have yet to be accepted by society.
To give credibility to the GIA, Bindiya facilitated medical care, education and HIV-screening for GIA workers. She also devised a system of mobilising her members in case of an emergency such as rape or violence against a transgender person. They assemble within minutes and act collectively as a pressure group to ensure that the police take prompt action.
To improve the legal status of the transgender community Bindiya negotiated shrewdly with the government. She set the ball rolling by filing a petition in the Supreme Court demanding constitutional entitlements for her people. The court responded positively. Nadra was directed to issue ID cards to transgender persons with their gender initially marked as ‘X’. Subsequently, three sub-categories were added.
In 2017 came wards for transgender people in hospitals. Finally, there was a landmark event: the passage of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018. Thus this neglected segment of our population was assured all the rights enjoyed by all citizens.
The gains have come in quick succession and have been encouraging. Emboldened, the transgender leadership proceeded to raise its profile, by jumping into the electoral fray. Bindiya and Nayab contested the elections in 2013 and 2018 respectively. They couldn’t win votes but won a victory for their cause.
Bindiya’s political struggle is inspiring given the adverse circumstances in which she has worked. She attributes her success to her personal commitment, her sustained activism and her inclusivity vis-à-vis colleagues who walk with her and not behind her, learning leadership qualities from her. It was Pakistan that was lauded when Nayab won the Franco-German Human Rights Award.
However, winning social acceptance is a different story altogether. Many transgender persons have a tragic tale of being rejected by their families. The stigmatisation causes deep emotional trauma. The only consolation is that there are some stories of kindly families cherishing transgender children and giving them normal lives. But they are few in number.
Where do the rejected ones go? The community has found its own solution. The rejected ones live voluntarily in sanctuaries where a senior called a ‘guru’ provides the ‘chelas’ (apprentices) protection and guidance. Living among their own kin organised systematically gives them emotional security. Yet a chela is free to leave a guru if s/he is unable to adjust to the leader. A guru who is kind and accommodating will attract more chelas.
Stigmatisation also has a negative impact on a transgender person’s job prospects. Unable to find employment easily, many end up in the sex trade. Others join groups of dancers and entertainers who are seen at wedding festivities. Yet others become street beggars.
The police are another challenge. They are the biggest perpetrators of sex crimes against transgender persons.
According to Bindiya, a chela’s quality of life depends on the gurus. There are those who have managed to change the lives of their chelas by empowering them with education as some families have also done. Professional colleges are now accepting transgender youth and some of them have become professionals. Younger transgender persons are articulate in expressing their self-perceived gender identity. All they want is to be allowed to live with dignity. Give them this space — with all the rights that citizens are entitled to.
Published in Dawn, July 1st, 2022