THE new year promises transvestites in Pakistan an identity. The National Database and Registration Authority will start issuing them computerised national identity cards from Jan 1, 2011. This is in pursuance of an order by the Supreme Court whose interest has led to the addition of a new column in the CNIC. The transvestites will be registered as ' mukhannas ', a term which means “biological males who would like to assume a female gender role….” The debate on whether they would like to be known as ' mukhannas ' or as ' mukhannis ' who are “biological males who identify as female and want a change of their biological sex” would be unnecessary unless those who are going to be registered in the new column object to the new tag. The sad fact is that all these terms are informed by the popular biases and prejudices which have ostracised a group of living, breathing people.

In June 2009, a lawyer who had taken the transvestites' case to the SC estimated there were around 80,000 of them in Pakistan. A BBC report in December last year put the figure at around 300,000. Whatever their number, they constitute a sizeable group, and they have genuine complaints against a system that makes fun of them and reduces a large number of them to act as beggars and prostitutes or as jesters drawing heavily on sexual innuendo. The state has a role in improving the social attitudes that cast these souls as pariahs. This in mind, the Nadra decision and the SC order that ensured it constitute the first step in the right direction. A lot remains to be done, however, and a suggestion to use the transvestites as collectors of taxes from stubborn evaders doesn't quite reflect new thinking on the part of Pakistani society and its institutions. It is as if there is a suggestion that transvestites be used as they have routinely been in the past: to cause embarrassment. True rehabilitation would require the elimination of these stereotypes from our minds and allow equal opportunity to everyone in all professions and in all spheres of life.

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