Transgender community in Pakistan has been a part of the social and professional sphere for as long as the country has existed. The community dates back to ancient monarchies and was actively involved in catering and entertainment of royal members of the kingdom. However, the life of a modern transgender person is very much similar to their previous counterparts, some might argue, even worse. There have been various government level reforms to curb the issue however the transgender community continues to face discrimination in every professional and social domain today.
The transgender community is not referred to as a sole entity, rather an amalgamation of various communities such as Hijra, Murat, Khwaja Siras and Eunuchs etc. Throughout medieval and modern history, eunuchs have been a part of social and political communities all across the world. The word eunuch started to emerge in the earlier parts of 09 B.C. where Greeks described it as “Keeper of the bed”. As Sharma (2012) states, the reference to “third sex” have been vividly found in religious scriptures. Most notably Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism have mentions of eunuchs in their sacred texts.
In modern history, transgenders were a prominent part of the Mughal empire. According to Michelraj (2015), transgenders played a significant role in the Mughal royal courts. They found a distinction in being “fiercely loyal” to the empire and achieved promotions to the point of being close guardians of the harems. Furthermore, they were assigned diplomatic and political roles which gave them access to the ins and outs of the city. In general, Muslim emperorship deemed transgenders as “clever” and “trustworthy”. Another example of such belief can be found in the fact that religious clergies and institutions named them as guardians of the holy places of Mecca and Medina, which gave them sufficient power to have a notable saying in state affairs.
However, in the context of British reign in the sub-continent, transgenders slowly started to lose their fundamental rights. Considering the fact that even major communities faced discrimination under communal India, the regression seemed predictable. Conventionally, transgenders were claimant to some amount of land-based on their incorporation in the Hijra community in British India. However, through various legislative amendments, this privilege was taken soon as the land “was not inherited through blood relations”. This pushed the community into further regression and the trajectory, in view of many scholars, has not been positive since then.
In modern times, most transgenders struggle for the right of freedom of expression and gender identity. Many of them are abandoned soon after birth and are adopted by community leaders, more formally known as a Guru. These Gurus conventionally train them in classical music and dance. This allows them to earn a livelihood for themselves and also their Gurus. However, this is not at all a bed of roses for the community. Most resort to working as sex-workers at various brothels. Formal surveys conclude that most transgenders actively take part in unprotected sex which leads to rampant HIV/AIDS cases across the nation.
According to a study conducted by Khan, Rehan, Qayyum, and Khan (2008), various transgenders with a median age of 24 were analyzed and surveyed. The study concluded that subjects were exposed to alcohol and drugs early on in their career. 84% of the included participants had worked as prostitutes, sold sex. This comes with a consequent point that the majority was subjected to physical, verbal, or mental abuse, as backed by 40% of the participants. Furthermore, 58% had sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that contributed to the overall HIV epidemic of the country.
The Pakistan Census of 2017 was historic by various means. However, it stood out as the first census to include the transgender population in the counting as well. Previously, transgenders had to label themselves as either a man or a woman since there was no third option available. Pakistan recently moved towards accepting the third gender and initiated reforms.
According to Ghumman (2017), Lahore High Court (LHC) ordered NADRA (National Database and Registration Authority) to include the transgender population in response to a petition. The census concluded that there were over 10,000 transgenders in Pakistan. Needless to say, this was a heavily disputed figure since the overall population of the country stood at 227 million individuals. It seemed highly unreasonable that there were only 10,000 transgenders in the country. Bindya Rana, a Karachi-based transgender activist argues that there are over 300,000 transgenders in Karachi alone.
Individuals who identify as transgenders are heavily subjected to social exclusion in Pakistani society. Some might argue it inflicts emotional trauma as well as pushing them towards commercial sex work. According to a study conducted through various in-depth interviews of 8 transgender workers by Abdullah, Basharat, and Kamal (2012), the lack of opportunities for the community forces them to resort to unlawful occupations. These transgenders face social exclusion at every stage of their life which morphs their social perspective negatively. Furthermore, the study concluded that transgenders were indeed socially excluded from the society which ultimately propels them to put their lives at risk.
As the modern and more tolerant population replaces the formerly conservative Pakistanis, gender identity becomes one of the many debated topics. The population has transformed to be more accepting of the third gender. Various NGOs and vocational training institutes are now mainstream to rehabilitate transgenders.
Pakistani legislation has played an active role in repelling defunct conventions and introducing radical reforms. Senate moved forward to approve Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018. The act explicitly reaffirms the state’s commitment to the protection and rehabilitation of transgenders.
Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018 states that the act shall be brought to the law “to provide for protection, relief and rehabilitation of rights of the transgender persons and their welfare and for matters connected therewith and incidental thereto”.
The second chapter of this act specifically focuses on recognition and identity of a transgender person. Through this historic rule of law, transgenders were given the “right to be recognized as per his or her self-perceived gender identity.” Right to self-identity also makes sure that transgenders have the fundamental right to “get himself or herself registered as per self-perceived gender identity with all government departments including, but not limited to NADRA.” Secondly, the clause implies the ability for a transgender person to change their name, obtain a license, and engage in legal matters in accordance with the constitution without any hindrance.
Furthermore, the act provides comprehensive protection for transgenders against certain acts. These include unfair treatment in the education and employment sector. Denial of employment, healthcare, services, safe travel, sale/purchase/rent/inherit property or removal from government or private establishment on the basis of their gender is also completely prohibited through this act. The act highlights that harassment of a transgender person in any setting shall be considered a violation of the law.
One of the many notable points of this aforementioned act is that it states the obligations of the government towards the transgender community as well. It is explicitly stated that the government “shall take steps to secure full and effective participation of transgender persons and their inclusion in society” especially in the establishment of protection centres, safe houses, and ensuring psychological care. In addition, establishing separate prisons, raising awareness in civil servants, creating vocational training programs, encouragement to start small businesses through loans, and any appropriate measures to further the cause.
Act also mentions the fundamental rights such as the right to inherit, right to education, right to employment, right to vote, right to hold public office, right to health, right to assembly, right to access to public places, right to property, and an overall guarantee to fundamental rights.
Lastly, the act mentions the offences and penalties along with the enforcement mechanism under the Pakistan Penal Code.
“Once mocked and ignored, transgenders are finally getting a place in the mainstream”, says Ahmed, the Associate Editor of Gulf News.
This statement comes from various reasons that can be analyzed to imply that Pakistan is becoming more open towards accepting transgenders. However slowly, reforms are happening. According to Ahmed (2019), 5% of the jobs in Sindh Police will be allotted to transgenders for the first time in history.
In a chain of such events, Pakistan also issued its first transgender passport to Farzana Jan which has been seen as a historic move by many in efforts to normalize and mainstream transgenders in the country.
Ahmed states that PM Imran’s government has taken various measures to uplift such individuals and engage them in being an active, responsive part of the society. Pakistani media also added to the movement by hiring the first-ever transgender news presenter Marvia Malik who also made it to the news formerly as a fashion model.
Transgenders have a rich history associated with sub-continent, as well as Pakistan. The community shares a deep contact with inhabitants of the land and holds a significant presence across the country. They are deprived of fundamental human rights in many sectors of life including religious, social, physical, and mental abuse. These abuses usually force them to pursue unlawful occupations and abandon their house. However, the government has been taking an active stance on the situation with legislation and uplifting reforms. These comprehensive reforms and their appropriate implementation will no doubt change the outlook for the community in Pakistan. It still needs to be seen whether these laws emerge as a ray of hope for the community or not.
The author is a student at National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences (FAST-NU) majoring in Computer Science.