It was 2008, I think. Our part-time graphic designer who was then involved in the making of a documentary on transgender persons would come to work with loads of stories to share with us.
Called ‘khusra’ or ‘khawja sira’ in local slang and parlance, transgender persons have mostly been cast out and marginalised; they have traditionally danced at wedding parties for money, or ended up as beggars at traffic signals, or as sex workers. To make things even worse for them, they have been routinely catcalled and mocked.
More than a decade later, things have improved for the transgender community. The 2017 Housing and Population Census counted 10,418 transgender persons in Pakistan – a country of more than 200 million people. Some of them say that only a fraction of them has been recorded. The country has legally recognised self-perceived gender identity through the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act. This law 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 persons can apply for an identity card, a driving licence, passport and other official documents. Heavy penalties are laid down for assault, unlawful eviction and harassment. And the State Bank of Pakistan has now asked the country’s banks to offer financing facility for low-cost housing to transgender persons. Building on the success of a private school established in Lahore last year for the community, the Punjab government has set up a school for them in the province’s southern city of Lodhran.
The schools offer a full 12 years of academic education and vocational training focusing on fashion, beauty and graphic design. Last year, a Pakistani news channel hired Marvia Malik, the country’s first transgender TV newsreader. A few others have landed low-level government jobs. Last year’s general elections saw 13 transgender persons as candidates. Earlier this month, a short film ‘Rani’ premiered at the 10th Karachi Literature Festival. Featuring transgender activist Kami Sid, it highlighted the desire of a transgender woman to be a mother and to lead a normal life by earning by selling toys for children.
Though gender-based prejudice is waning, transgender persons still face social exclusion. According to a study “they experience high levels of physical abuse and face discriminatory behaviour in daily life”. The transgender community still complains of discrimination and stigma.
It is even more painful when they are denied education and health facilities. According to reports, sixty transgender persons have been murdered in the past three years in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa alone. The study suggests “accommodating this group into the mainstream so that the element of social exclusion can be eliminated”. It proposes “interventions aimed at increasing social inclusion, reducing gender-based discrimination, violence and physical abuse and facilitating access to quality medical care”.
To promote inclusiveness in the political process for the transgender community, a national consultation, however, has recommended revision of party manifestos to cater to transgender rights; sensitisation of stakeholders and duty bearers (such as the police); procedural amendments in electoral processes by the Election Commission of Pakistan (particularly inclusion of a third-gender column and facilitation of voting for transgender persons); and awareness campaigns through the media to promote mainstreaming of the transgender community.
An inclusive narrative and measures for mainstreaming transgender persons are indicative of the kind of progress the country is making in ensuring rights. We would see more acceptance if the law were executed effectively. Yet for a real transformation, we’ll need to change the lens through which we, as a society see a transgender person.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.