By Zoya Chishti
Pakistan is one of the most conservative countries in the world. It’s a country where homosexuality is still illegal, child marriage makes up 21% of all marriages and where spousal abuse was almost legalised. One of the better-known challenges Pakistan faces is the widespread transphobia that has terrorised the trans community in Pakistan for decades. While there are no official precise figures on the number of transgender or third-gender people living in the country, estimates range from 80,000 to between 350,000-500,000, with perhaps 60-70,000 in Karachi alone. The atrocities carried out against the community over the years include social exclusion, refusal of work, verbal abuse and even murder in some of the more extreme cases reported. However, despite the historical transphobia, Pakistan has become one of ten countries in the world to provide an option “X” on their passports.
The history and context
With how diverse the world is, it is only natural that there’s a large variety in terms of the definition and understanding of gender and sexual orientation. In the west and other large parts of the world, transgender is an umbrella term, and is defined as being the state of gender identity or expression not matching one’s assigned biological sex. This is completely independent of sexual orientation. In Pakistan and the subcontinent, they have a different understanding of gender identity. Intersex, a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male, is included under the “transgender” umbrella in Pakistan. The native word used instead of transgender is “Hijra” throughout the subcontinent, but is considered derogatory in Pakistan.
Looking back through history, the trans community were once accepted and welcomed members of society. The history of their communities across south-east Asia date back more than 4,000 years and they appear in ancient texts as bearers of luck and fertility. For centuries they were sought after to perform blessings and ceremonies, and had long-standing religious respect, especially in India.
Modern day discrimination
The transgender community of Pakistan have faced a tremendous amount of discrimination throughout the years, and can be identified as one of the most marginalised group in the conservative Muslim nation. In 2015 alone, over 45 transgender individuals were killed in the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. One of the most recent highly publicised incidents was the death of a 23-year-old trans activist in Peshawar in May 2016. Alisha was rushed to a hospital with gunshot wounds, and later died as result of massive delays in her treatment. The reason for the delay was due to a debate over which ward she should be put in, male or female. In a scathing editorial, a Pakistani e-paper, Daily Times, wrote that, “In the light of apathetic attitude and its justification by hospital authorities, it would not be farfetched to conclude that an abhorrent form of apartheid mentality prevails in Pakistan in which transgenders elicit such contempt that their lives are not given even an iota of value.”
In 2012, the Supreme Court declared equal rights for transgender citizens, including the right to inherit property and equal opportunity in education and employment, and the year before, they were given the right to vote. In 2016, Pakistan saw its first transgender model debut in a stunning photoshoot that she dedicated to “ending transphobia”. In January 2017, Senator Babar Awan introduced the Transgender Persons Bill as a private member’s bill into the Senate. The bill seeks to ensure the fundamental rights of transgender people are upheld in Pakistan. Pakistan have also introduced an “X” option on passports, which is a massive step forward for the trans movement. This move by the government means that people now have the option to have their gender preferences recognised, and that is a fantastic win for the trans community and activists. Although these are all milestones in the ongoing battle against transphobia, there is a lot more that can be done.
What is really needed?
The general view amongst the trans community in Pakistan is that a change in legislation is not enough to bring about meaningful change. The real problem is the attitudes of a mainstream society that shuns and abuses them, often forcing them into begging or prostitution to earn a living. The violence that still occurs further shows that “Pakistan is not a safe place for people who are different, especially transgenders. And in this increasingly intolerant society in which space is getting increasingly protracted for those who deviate from the norm, it is essential that the loud and violent voices of intolerance be shunned”. Today in Pakistan, too many still care far too much about what other people are doing, or how other people are living their lives. This is only slightly agitating on a small scale, but can reach life threatening proportions for marginalized groups like transgender people. Until society stops upholding everyone to outdated standards and definitions of gender and gender expression, the violence will not cease. Activists need to make their voices louder, and people within Pakistan need to openly condemn the violence, or the loudest voices of intolerance will continue to prevail.