THE Pakistani parliament passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act in 2018. The mounting opposition to the law four years after its enactment reflects the hurdles in the way of accepting the changing norms vis-à-vis diversity across the world. The usual appeasing response from the state institutions is not only making the radical sections stronger but also hindering the nation in keeping pace with Muslim societies elsewhere that are fast adapting to the sociocultural changes taking place in the world.
Managing or accepting diversity has remained largely in the realm of religion for a long time. But sociopolitical changes, especially external and internal migration, have brought the subject of diversity into the administrative domain as well. Accepting gender, racial, ethnic or religious diversity is becoming an integral part of the administration of workplaces across the world. Increasing globalisation demands a global citizen who feels empathy for people of diverse backgrounds. This is considered essential for a richer experience of life and for enhancing productivity and expanding perspectives.
From the Middle East and North Africa to Southeast Asia, Muslim societies are trying harder to adjust to new sociocultural norms without compromising on their core social and religious values. A Singapore-based scholar, James M. Dorsey, recently shared the findings of the ‘Global Islamic Economy Indicator’ compiled by US-based research and consultancy company DigiStandard. The indicator reviews various subjects linked to Muslims, including halal food, Islamic finance, Muslim-friendly travel and recreation, as well as media. It was interesting to note that the importance of religion is increasing in all categories mentioned here, while, at the same time, acceptance of religious and racial diversity is also high.
Prejudice and negative perceptions about people of other faiths and races are still common in both the West and the East, and shape people’s opinions about local and global politics and cultures. These sentiments are not likely to disappear soon as the forces of hate are still quite strong around the world. More interaction among people of diverse backgrounds reduces biases and helps in understanding the other’s perspectives. Citizens living in cosmopolitan cities might have more opportunities for broader interaction, but the majority live in demographically less dense areas.
Why is Pakistan often singled out and tagged as an intolerant society?
A diversity study of England and Wales, conducted by the Woolf Institute of Cambridge University, found that there was national consensus that diversity is good for British society. However, compared to people living in London, people in the north and east of England and Wales tended to be less optimistic about diversity. Migration brought about changes in an individual, the host society, and even the immigrant’s own community. Accepting change is always challenging, and the study found that despite positive attitudes towards diversity, many people across England and Wales appeared to be uncomfortable with the pace of national and local changes.
One may argue that if this is a global problem, why is Pakistan often singled out and tagged as an intolerant society? There would be multiple explanations available, from the extremist tendencies in Pakistan to the worldview of the Pakistani diaspora living abroad, which is often incompatible with other migrant communities. It is a fact that internal migration and increasing literacy rates among marginalised communities demand that both state and society promote a culture of acceptance. Apart from this debate, the core problem lies in the exclusive nature of the state where power elites have nurtured a mindset that is not empathetic even to fellow citizens of other faiths. The state uses religion to impose exclusivity on its citizens, which could cause a reversal of the law passed by parliament.
Yasir Pirzada wrote in an Urdu daily that it took the clergy two centuries to reconcile with the reality of photographs. And it may take another 100 years to understand the sufferings of transgender people. He was referring to the long debate among religious scholars that produced numerous religious decrees on the legitimacy of photographs. The same religious mindset is now creating hurdles in the acceptance of gender diversity in our society.
It is true to some extent that the clergy is always critical of new trends and tends to resist them until these become a norm. The state and intelligentsia facilitate alternative views in the debate, but the state turns naive and apologetic when the clergy puts pressure. Another related issue is that state institutions always feel scared of ethnic and racial diversity in the country and still believe that religion can unite the nation. But the clergy does not believe in religious diversity. The state and clergy form a lethal combination, which harms only their citizens.
Despite all the complexities associated with acceptance and diversity, the world is gradually heading towards a destination where diversity is more of a celebration than segregation of people. This is a compulsion of the globalised world, and Pakistan is facing the challenge too.
It is understandable that the journey towards transformation is not an easy one as the state and religious institutions jointly resist any change. Both have developed their own political economy, and they need collaboration for survival. The political economy of the religious institutions is vast, expanding further in the form of madressahs, shrines, schools, health units, charities, huge investments in real estate, and political parties. Religious institutions are least interested in what is happening worldwide and in Muslim societies. Even those who have some awareness do not take the risk of initiating the process of change through dialogue. Only a few sane voices can be heard but these are not tolerated by the clergy.
Pakistan has the potential to join Muslim societies in the process of positive change, but state institutions here would have to provide a chance for alternative voices. The change comes through transformation in institutional thinking, which should have a worldview compatible with the norms of the age.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, October 2nd, 2022