With transgender rights, Pakistan has an opportunity to be a pathbreaker
LAHORE, Pakistan — In January this year, Shama — an 18-year-old transgender woman — was abducted and brutally raped by nine men in Peshawar. Two months later, Marvia Malik made her debut as Pakistan’s first transgender broadcast journalist.
On May 4, assailants fatally shot Muni, a transgender woman who worked as a dancer, when she could not provide change for a Rs1,000 note to the men she was hired to entertain at a wedding.
And two days later, Pakistan’s National Assembly passed the historic Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act.
This vacillating pattern is in line with what the fight for the rights of transgender people has looked like in Pakistan.
One day, decapitated, tortured bodies of transgender people are being refused admission into a morgue for fear of “polluting them.” The next, Pakistan becomes the first Asian country — and one of the few in the world — to legally recognize self-perceived gender identity.
The Act is commendable for its nuance, range and clarity. It allows the citizens of Pakistan to self-identify their gender, bans discrimination in public places like schools, work, public transportation and doctor’s offices.
Transgender people can apply for a driving license, passport and other official documents using their chosen identities.
Heavy penalties are delineated for assault, unlawful eviction and harassment.
It accounts for sensitivity training for law enforcement and streamlines the process to change gender in government records.
This year’s World Human Rights Day is a special one for transgender activists in Pakistan: for the first time, a third space has been created for them.
Nearly 147 years after the British empire classified them as a ‘criminal tribe’ — here they are, their demand for legal equality finally recognized.
Bank accounts are being opened using forms with a space for a third gender. Under new government policy, transgender people can avail interest-free loans.
Jobs may soon roll out for the community, including the Supreme Court as Chief Justice Saqib Nisar has promised.
This legislation could very well transform the community. Traditionally relegated to entertainment, sex work and begging, they are now electoral candidates. Election observers. Activists.
But at the same time, there have been cases of transgender women who have been set on fire for allegedly refusing sexual favors.
They are being attacked in their own homes, stabbed when they stand up for themselves.
They welcome the legislation, but rightly worry it will not dismantle decades of stigma and prejudice.
The 2017 Housing and Population Census counted 10,418 transgender people in Pakistan — a country with a population of over 200 million. This figure is implausibly low, representing a mere fraction of what the real number could be.
Members of the transgender community estimate this to be at least half a million people. If these are the official numbers for the government, then the resources promised to the community by the Act will reflect that.
Many transgender women have protested that the census agents registered them as men. Family members also rarely admit that their loved one could be transgender.
There is an internalised shame in coming forward as transgender, and committing to the dangers that come with that association.
And so, this disturbingly low tally seems to tell the transgender community that they do not, in fact, count.
No funding has been allocated to address some of the problems that the Act sought to correct. And none of the provinces have passed their own version of the law.
The government has been sincere in its attempts to provide protections to the transgender community. Intentions, optics and a series of historic firsts must now give way to implementation, protection and results.
Pakistan has an opportunity to be a pathbreaker. The timing could not be more perfect. In October this year, protests erupted across the United States when President Donald Trump threatened the rights of transgender people.
Earlier this year, police in Indonesia arrested 12 individuals perceived to be transgender women and shut down five beauty salons where they worked. To subject them to further humiliation, the police also cut their hair and forced them to wear men’s clothes.
In Malaysia, an aide to a minister was forced to step down from his government position after a vicious campaign against him due to his activism for LGBTI rights.
In a grim global landscape for the rights of transgender individuals, Pakistan has an opportunity to be a leader, a champion for one of the most vulnerable groups in the world.
The victory is within reach and the benefits to the country’s soft power endless.
A country that is seen to be regressive on gender can show a more progressive side.
If the Act is executed effectively — with an emphasis on accountability — we could see more acceptance of the transgender community, and with it, reduced violence.
That is not nothing.
And to a community that has been persecuted, maimed, killed, shamed, set on fire, refused entry into hospitals, shunned, raped and marginalized — that could mean a lot.
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