TRANSPHOBIA takes many forms, all of them cruel and degrading. Sometimes it emanates from unexpected quarters. On Friday at the Karachi airport, Flydubai refused to allow two transgender activists from the Gender Interactive Alliance, Shahzadi Rai and Zehrish, to board its flight to Dubai apparently on account of their ‘x’ gender and cancelled their tickets. Both were flying to Kathmandu via the UAE to attend an annual meeting. It is shocking for an international airline — that too, hypocritically enough, from a country which has recently relaxed its domestic laws on alcohol consumption and same-sex couples living together in order to enhance its business-friendly image — to exhibit such transphobic attitudes. It is heartening that when Shahzadi took to social media to speak about the incident, there was a wave of support for the two activists and revulsion over Flydubai’s actions. Ironically, just a short while before, Shahzadi had tweeted a picture of herself at the airport with the caption, “The goal is to die with memories, not dreams”.
Unfortunately, what transpired on Friday illustrates that a law can be ahead of its time and that many people, hostage to entrenched biases, find it difficult to imagine a kinder, more inclusive world. Pakistan’s legislation on the rights of transgenders is an achievement the country can truly be proud of, for it has been drafted with a view to addressing the very real indignities and hurdles that transpersons face in going about their daily lives. For example, the law provides for a third gender option (which evidently offended the airline’s ground staff), enabling transgenders to obtain identification documents that are necessary to access many services, including health, education, etc as well as government employment. A sea change in their material circumstances is now possible. Before this, most transgenders were forced to earn a living in the undocumented sector, often through sex work, which led to more stereotyping and further discrimination. It was a self-perpetuating vicious cycle. Nevertheless, as repeated incidents of violence — including rape and murder — against transgenders in Pakistan demonstrate, they continue to be dehumanised and seen as society’s outcasts. The latest incident, while not in the same category, stems from the same mindset. The state must demonstrate that transgenders are fully entitled to its protection and demand that Flydubai, or any other foreign entity for that matter, respect the law of this land.
Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2023