In 2018, Pakistan passed The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, which not only prohibited discrimination against transgender people in schools, offices and public transport, but also allowed transgender people to choose their gender on official documents.
This legislation is one of the biggest steps taken by the country to ensure transgender rights and recognise their right to determine their identity. The Act explicitly defined 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”, and gender expression as “a person’s presentation of their gender identity, and/or the one that is perceived by others.”
It further defines a transgender person as “intersex with mixture of male and female genital features or congenital ambiguities; or eunuch assigned male at birth, but undergoes genital excision or castration; or a Transgender Man, Transgender Woman, Khwajasira or any person whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the social norms and cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at the time of their birth.”
Pakistan’s Transgender Act is remarkably clear about the people it seeks to protect from discrimination and harassment, and in providing fundamental rights to them. However, recently there has been a lot of debate regarding this Act being in compliance with Islam and Sharia. Amongst many ill-informed and ignorant objections to the Act, opponents claim that it facilitates same-sex marriage and enables transgender people to claim more inheritance if they choose to identify as male.
The Transgender Persons Act, passed in 2018, has not just been successful in granting more rights to a historically oppressed minority, but has also played a pivotal role in exposing deep-seated prejudice
This debate has revealed people’s ignorance regarding gender minorities and their deep-seated prejudice against transgender people being recognised as equal citizens. Although these objections are cloaked as defence of Islam and the country against ‘vulgar’ Western propaganda, it is nothing more than apathy for people who have been pushed to the margins of society, only because of how they were born. It encourages continued hate and violence against transgender people who are harassed, raped and killed with impunity in Pakistan.
The vast majority of Pakistanis have never interacted with a transgender person beyond seeing them begging on the streets or dancing for money. There is no tolerance for accepting them as a part of society, in schools, offices, public transport, etc.
Earlier this year, fashion designer Maria B. vocally opposed an invitation by a private school in Lahore to transgender rights activist Dr Mehrub Moiz Awan. She claimed on social media that that Awan was “not from the Khwajasira community… he is a man transitioning into a woman in Pakistan.”
In her social media posts against Dr Awan, Maria B. claimed that the majority of the Pakistani population, as well as the lawmakers, had no idea what the term transgender really meant. The notion that ‘certain people who are actually men identify as women due to ulterior motives’ is a result of years of prejudice against transgender people and the lack of socialising with gender minorities beyond their stereotypical roles.
Ayesha Murtaza, Director of Human Resources at Fountain House in Lahore, works closely with the transgender community as part of Fountain House’s Khwajasira Support Programme. She says that when the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) started issuing National Identity Cards to khwajasiras, a problem that was encountered was that they were asked to prove that they were, in fact, transgender.
That was humiliating and dehumanising for a community that is already marginalised and made to feel ashamed by the society, she says. Regardless of the discussion around transgender rights becoming relatively more mainstream, people are ignorant about the dismal conditions khwajasiras are forced to live in.
One of the khwajasiras who was present at the monthly gathering for the transgender community at Fountain House says, “Who wants to dress up as a woman and be targeted in this society if they are not actually transgender? People do not understand this.”
S*, who works as a cook in Lahore and dresses up as a man, says, “Even if I do not wear make-up and dress as a woman, I am still identified as a transgender and harassed in public. This is how we are and we cannot help the way we were born.”
S said that khwajasiras like her start displaying transgender characteristics, such as wanting to wear dresses, wearing make-up etc, once they are 12 or 13 years of age. That is when they start getting beaten up at home and harassed outside for acting the way they do. “Even if you imprison us in a cage made of gold, we would still escape, because we cannot help the way we are,” she says.
Despite many from the transgender community testifying to the fact that no one would assume the identity of a khwajasira if they were not actually one, people are still under the impression that transgender rights are an excuse to provide legitimacy to homosexuality or are part of a Western agenda.
Violence against the transgender community is committed across the country with total impunity. Khwajasiras have been killed in public without the murderers facing any accountability from law-enforcing agencies. In the absence of official figures, transgender rights activists estimate that over 90 transgender people have been killed in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa since 2015.
The transgender community has been limited to begging on the streets, dancing or doing sex work for money. They are not considered part of the society, which is why they are not given education or taught vocational skills to live as equal citizens. They are ridiculed for the work they do to earn a living, but are also not accepted in any other role.
Transgenders who have acquired training as textile designers from volunteer organisations say it is difficult for them to get jobs. They say that they are insulted, abused and sexually harassed at work. This kind of hostile environment discourages others from their community to look for jobs. They say that, although the government has announced job quotas for transgender people, it does nothing to ensure enforcement.
“No one has been held accountable for refusing to hire us because of our gender,” they say. According to members of the transgender community, even if they take up jobs, their salary is not enough to earn them a living. Jobs usually pay below minimum wage, not enough to live on.
Another factor that keeps khwajasiras from projecting their businesses on social media or becoming prominent in the public eye is the fear of being targeted by groups who routinely rape and assault members of the transgender community. They talk about a member of their community who was stripped and assaulted in Sialkot, with the perpetrators getting off scot-free. According to transgender people in Pakistan, “There is no difference between a dog and a khwajasira being killed in the streets of this country.”
Although the situation regarding transgender rights is bleak in Pakistan, some members of the community feel, however, that they are being heard. They think that social media gives them a platform to force the police to take action against criminals who target and assault the transgender community.
Organisations such as the Gender Interactive Alliance, founded by Bindiya Rana to advocate for the protection of transgender rights and empower the community, are a sign that things are changing. Transgender people are now more vocal in demanding protection of their fundamental rights and security. Members of the khwajasira community, especially those who have a social media presence, are part of the discussion around the Transgender Persons Act.
Transgender people utilise social media to organise and form a community with other transgender rights activists. It also provides them a platform to clarify misperceptions about their gender identity.
Shahzadi Rai, a prominent transgender rights activist, uses Twitter to counter right-wing disinformation campaigns against the Transgender Persons Act. She has also expressed support to other transgender people through social media and raised her voice against rising violence against her community.
Although social media has become an important tool to project the voices of the marginalised, online presence comes with its share of dangers as well. Transgender people are vulnerable to online attacks and stalking, which may result in physical assault as well.
B*, a transgender woman who has a TikTok account, says that she constantly faces abuse and harassment online. She says she has to ignore such men, otherwise she would not be able to use social media at all. Other young transwomen say that they do not use social media due to the fear of being stalked and assaulted.
“There are groups who target us, follow us to our homes, and beat us.” They do not want to draw attention towards themselves because they have seen people from their community being assaulted or killed with impunity.
The issue of recognising transgender people as equal citizens of the country and accepting them as a part of mainstream society will remain contentious as long as the subject remains a taboo. Muhammad Ashraf, project manager of the khwajasira programme at Fountain House, says “Rejection starts at home. Families do not accept a transgender person, abuse and look down upon them, until they have to leave home in their early teens. If the family is standing behind a khwajasira, the state and society will also have to accept them.”
The very existence of transgender people in our society is shrouded in deep bias and generations of ill-informed ideas about their lives. Had they been allowed to live normal lives, go to schools and colleges, take part in the workforce, and move around in society, just as other people do, perhaps ensuring their fundamental rights would not have been such a controversial issue.
Until that happens, however, it is important to give khwajasiras the space to talk about their gender identity and the reality in which they live. It is important to shut down any narrative, under any guise, that incites more violence against the community.
**Name hidden to protect privacy*
The writer is a former civil servant who is presently based in Turkey. She can be reached at email@example.com
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 15th, 2023