Pakistan will count its transgender citizens in the March census, but in many ways, trans rights in the region have a long way to go.
The Lahore High Court of Pakistan took a major step in defense of transgender rights in January by including the transgender community in the March 2017 population census.
The Pakistani government has officially recognized a third gender since 2009 — a move that granted basic civil rights, such as the ability to identify as trans on official documents. However, the trans community was disenfranchised until 2012, when the Supreme Court of Pakistan declared equal rights for transgender individuals, including the right to vote as a third-gender person, as well as the right to inheritances. Before that, only males and females were permitted to vote, even though a third gender was officially recognized. By 2013, transgender Pakistanis were running for government office.
Pakistan joins India, Nepal, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Bangladesh as one of the few countries that officially recognizes transgender people within its borders.
There are no official figures on how many people in Pakistan identify as transgender, but the TransAction advocacy group estimates to Straits Times that there are roughly 500,000 trans individuals in the nation of 190 million. While the transgender community in India, Bangladesh and Nepal are known by the name hijra, in Urdu this is considered a derogatory term and instead they are referred to as Khwaja Sara and Khwaja Sira.
Even though transgender Pakistanis are recognized by the government, on a social level they are still marginalized and ostracized from mainstream society, much like the case of hijra in India. Also like hijra, Khwaja Sara exclusively refers to people who have transitioned from being assigned male at birth to being female, and castration is a major rite of passage.
That a majority fundamentalist Muslim nation such as Pakistan to recognize Khwaja Sara speaks to the long history the community has had in the South Asian region, even though they were criminalized under the rule of the British Raj. And in spite of so much Pakistani censorship of sex and sexuality in film and television, Khwaja Sara appeared in the 1992 Jamil Dehlavi film Immaculate Conception, where they guard a fertility shrine in Karachi; the Indus TV production Murad (Desire); Kamran Qureshi’s 33-episode program Moorat (Eunuch’s Wedding) in 2004; and Bol (Speak) in 2011, which featured the casting of transgender actor Almas Bobby — the first appearance of a transgender individual in Pakistani visual media.
Even with all the advancements enjoyed by the Khwaja — that transgender communities around the world right now only dream of — Khwaja Sara still suffer from discrimination, violence, sexual violence and lack of access to education and health services. In November 2016, a video of a group of men flogging and torturing a Khwaja Sara woman went viral. What wasn’t in the video were all the other women in the same household, who had also been beaten and tortured for several hours and their heads shaved, according to witnesses who made statements to TransAction. Ten men were arrested for the assaults, and while in police custody, the alleged gang leader told Dunya News:
“I was punishing him because he didn’t refrain from his bad habits, which I pointed out to him several times.”
And, like their American counterparts, the bathroom issue is a huge one in Pakistan. Vice reported an in-depth analysis of Khwaja Sara, and the even more marginalized community of transgender men in the nation:
“VICE News tracked down one twenty-one-year-old transgender man living in Sindh province. Daanish (not his real name) is biologically female and pre-medical transition. He wears his hair cropped and boy’s clothes.
While public changing rooms and toilets are the bane of transgender lives around the world, in Pakistan gender segregation is inviolable and the issue is particularly acute.
Daanish related a typical experience at an airport toilet. ‘The female janitor had gone and I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to explain my gender,’ he said. “But when I stepped out of the stall, she was there shouting at me that I should get out and we started arguing about what I was, and my male clothing. This whole event traumatized me in such a way that even today I don’t go to public bathrooms, I have such anxiety.’
Vice reports that trans men and lesbians are all but erased from Pakistani society, and do not enjoy any of the same rights as Khawja Sara. Vice also reports that not one single transgender man has registered as third-gender since the possibility became available. Their invisibility demonstrates that the country still has a long way to go for the entirety of the LGBTQ community, not just the trans women who have historically always been visible, whether accepted or not. And ironically, Pakistani penal code article 377 states that homosexual acts are illegal, punishable by 100 lashes and/or 10 years in prison. In Pakistan, it is against the law to be gay, but not transgender.
Related: On Pussy Hats and Transmisogyny
In June of 2016, the BBC reported that a religious decree was passed by 50 clerics that declared transgender marriage legal. Their interpretation of the Koran posited that transgender individuals with “visible signs” of maleness or femaleness should be permitted to marry a person of the opposite sex. The clerics further noted that the humiliation, insult, or teasing of transgender citizens should be treated as a crime under Islamic law. While a fatwa is not actually legally binding, it opens the door for government legislation to follow.
The contradictions are strong in Pakistan, but in many ways the country is still light years ahead of the developed world on this issue. Just last month, the Khawja Sara community of Peshawar threw a huge birthday gala for one of its matriarchs, Shakeela. While there was a police presence, for once the women were allowed to celebrate, dance and enjoy the party without fear of violence from outsiders and the police. The police even functioned as party security to keep out those without invitations. That a huge segment of the transgender community in Pakistan is thriving in this way is some of the best news we’ve had in 2017 so far.