Feeling excited and equally scared, Nisha Rao stepped into a political rally for the first time in her life last week. Nisha is not a stranger to large gatherings as she has been to many protests outside the press club. But a political rally was a completely different sphere for her.
People stared of course, but as a transgender person, she is used to that and even worse. However, she was pleasantly surprised to see that she didn’t feel unwelcome in the space. “They were staring at me as if shocked by my presence but they didn’t bother me,” she told The News in an interview.
Nisha, a representative of the Gender Interactive Alliance (GIA), a transgender rights organisation, is excited to be playing an active role in Wednesday’s general elections. She is among the 375 people from across the country who have received training from the Trust for Democratic Education and Accountability (TDEA), under the banner of Coalition for Inclusive Pakistan which has 15 civil society organisation, to be election observers, keeping track of issues women, disabled or transgender voters might face during the polling process and assisting them.
Twenty five women, 25 transgenders and 25 persons with disabilities each were selected from Quetta, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Islamabad for the trainings which took place in their respective cities. The aim is to make the elections more inclusive because these three groups – disabled persons, transgender community and women –often get ignored in the process, Zahid Abdullah of the TDEA told The News.
“We approached different organisations working with these groups to send us their representatives for training,” he said. “Following the training, these people will further help their own communities by holding awareness sessions for them, thus ensuring their participation.”
Abdullah said out of these three groups, the transgender community is the most vulnerable because they are often harassed not only by the voters but also by the security staff. Hence, they feel threatened and do not come to their polling stations. “We are hoping that the presence of their own representatives [at polling stations] would ensure their participation and curb their fear,” he said.
As a part of the implementation of her training, last week, Nisha attended a political rally organised by Pakistan Peoples Party’s PS-104 candidate Saeed Ghani in Kashmir Colony. “I was a bit excited and scared because I have never gone to any such gathering before,” she said. “However, I received a very warm response and didn’t feel intimidated in any way. I observed the people, especially men, around me as to how they were responding to me and I am glad to say that it went well. They were staring at me, as if shocked by my presence but didn’t bother me.”
No provisions for transgenders
The trainees were also asked to meet the representatives of the top political parties in their assigned areas and attend their rallies.
Nisha met Ghani, Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan’s Rauf Siddiqui, Milli Muslim League’s Akbar Mudassir, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s Amir Liaquat and Nomi Bashir, an independent candidate. She said she asked for their manifestoes and studied them thoroughly to understand the provisions made for the transgender community.
“However, I have to say it with remorse that none of the parties have any room for our community in their mandates,” she said. “But the representatives assured me that they would look into our grievances and if they are able to ascend to power, they will definitely have an inclusive mandate.”
Monitoring the election
On the day of the election, Nisha and other colleagues who received the training would be deployed at various polling stations as observers. However, as the coordinator of her group, she would be required to be on the move to ensure the process goes smoothly for her community members who visit to vote.
She explained that if the observers see someone bothering a member of their community, they can assist that voter and ask them to reach out to the returning officer. If that doesn’t solve matters, then they can also go to an alternative polling station to cast their vote.
“Similarly, if any polling station doesn’t allow them [transgenders] to vote, it would be on us to give them 10 other polling stations as a substitute,” she explained. The trainees would also observe the ongoing process to see the response of voters as well as election staff towards them.
Nisha has also been holding meetings with other members to raise awareness regarding the election and voting. “We have divided the city into five broad sections, and held five meetings with the community in areas of Gizri, Orangi, Korangi and others,” she said.
The observers meet transgender communities and explain the process of voting to them and also assure them that their previous NICs, which do not yet list the gender they identify with, can be used to vote. The groups then spread the information among others.
A welcome step
Veteran transgender activist and head of the GIA, Bindiya Rani, declared the election training a first of its kind in Pakistan for the marginalised community.
“The step taken by this organisation has been very beneficial for us because in a society where we aren’t even considered living beings, 25 people from the transgender community in each province will be deployed at various polling stations to monitor the voting process,” she said. “The idea of our people being involved in monitoring would silence all those who often snicker at our existence.”
However, Bindiya expressed disappointment that political representatives expect votes from the transgender community, but don’t even invite them to corner meetings.
Speaking about her decision to not contest this election, Bindiya who was a provincial assembly candidate in 2013, said that after the passage of the landmark Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2017 earlier this year, she was expecting the Election Commission of Pakistan to acknowledge the community as potential candidates as well. But the nomination forms didn’t have any section to declare oneself transgender.
According to Bindiya, when she went to the office, she was handed the same nomination form used in 2013, and when she approached the ECP with her concerns, she did not receive a response. “Our struggle has always been for equality of rights, but despite the bill there is no place for us,” she lamented.
She added that despite the odds some 13 transgender persons were contesting from Punjab and the community was looking forward to participate as voters. Bindaya said they were also thrilled to have members observing the elections to facilitate transgender voters. “The members we train in our meetings spread the word further. Now, they all are well aware about their constituency as well as polling stations, and are gearing to vote this time round,” she smiled.