Pakistan's Hijra hold their heads high

In March 2018 Pakistanʹs transgender community experienced an incredible turnaround, when legislators passed a new law protecting them. Pakistani author Mahwish Gul believes it is the first step towards ending marginalisation and deprivation

By Mahwish Gul

Pakistanʹs Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018 not only ensures the right to be recognised as per his or her perceived gender identity. It also spells out their fundamental rights. Transmen and women now have the right to vote and to stand as candidates, as well as the right to inheritance, education, employment, health, property, access to public places and freedom of assembly. According to the new law, those people concerned enjoy all the rights that Pakistanʹs constitution affords its citizens.

The law accords Pakistanis the right to express their gender according to their "innermost and individual sense of self", whether that corresponds to the sex they were assigned at birth or not. It thus guarantees them the right to be officially registered according to the identity they choose. That applies to all purposes, from identity cards, driving licences, passports to educational certificates. Those who wish may also apply to have any existing registrations amended.

According to this new legislation, the personʹs sense of identity is what matters, not the genitals or other physical characteristics. The law defines a transgender person as "any person whose gender identity and or gender expression differs from the social norms and cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at the time of their birth."

A huge step

The reform is a huge step for Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim country with rather conservative ideas of gender roles. To what extent it will contribute to improving the fate of transgender people in practice, however, remains to be seen. Traditionally, the Hijras – a South Asian term for transvestites, transgender people and eunuchs – are a poor and marginalised community, barely surviving on the fringes of the society.

Transsexual demonstration in Karachi in December 2010 (photo: Getty Images/AFP/A. Hasan)
Protest against social exclusion and stigmatization: despised by the general population, Pakistanʹs Hijras live an isolated existence in small, scattered communities. Their relatives typically reject them, often soon after birth. They are supported only by their peers

There are no reliable official statistics concerning the number of transgender people in Pakistan. According to the 2017 census, there are 10,000, but civil society groups estimate there could be as many as 500,000. As far as discriminated minorities are concerned, census data the world over tends to be unreliable. For similar reasons, the average income and purchasing power of Hijras is not known. It is obvious, however, that they are mostly condemned to multi-dimensional poverty.

Despised by the general population, Pakistanʹs Hijras live an isolated existence in small, scattered communities. Their relatives typically reject them, often soon after birth. They are supported only by their peers. With no hope of a meaningful life, they survive by begging, show dancing and prostitution.

Mocked and ridiculed their entire lives, they face constant harassment, violence, abuse, rape and exploitation. Abuse by the police is common too. After decades of neglect and persecution, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act now offers new hope – but structural and systemic discrimination is far from over. The authorities must now also implement the new legal principles.

Judicial decisions

The new principles are not entirely new. The judiciary has been laying the foundations for a decade now, as the Supreme Court of Pakistan has made several decisions in favour of the transgender community. The first impulse came from a lawyer who submitted a petition to protect the hijras in 2009. Soon afterwards, the Supreme Court ruled that the state must register them officially with the aim of full social inclusion.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that Hijras were entitled to be entered in the electoral register. They could also call themselves the third sex. In 2013, the Supreme Court recognised transgender people as equal citizens. It stated that they enjoy all constitutional fundamental rights. The right to inheritance, identity, employment and protection from harassment by the police and other security forces were expressly mentioned.[embed:render:embedded:node:20565]In passing the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act in March 2018, Pakistanʹs parliament has now enshrined these principles in law. The new legislation has triggered a series of firsts for transgender people in Pakistan.

In March, a 21-year-old journalist became the countryʹs first transgender news anchor.

In April the first college offering vocational training for transgender people opened.

In August, a member of the community became the first transgender person to open a bank account, while another launched their own fashion brand.

There are many similar stories. They show that at least some members of the transgender community are benefitting from a changing culture, though their experience may not be representative of all transgender people in Pakistan.

Discrimination has not stopped, however. In September, for example, four men killed a transgender person who resisted a sexual assault. The culprits set fire to their victim and she died after suffering 80 percent burn injuries. Three days later, an official of Pakistanʹs Law and Justice Commission was asked to report to the Supreme Court. He said that at least 500 transgender persons have been killed since 2015.

In the same hearing, Mian Saqib Nisar, the chief justice, announced that the Supreme Court will soon hire transgender staff. Observers consider this an important precedent. The grassroots reality for many transgender people remains tough, nonetheless. Harassment, ridicule and stigmatisation continue. Dignity and physical integrity are constantly questioned. Time will tell what changes this reform in the law will bring to everyday life.

Mahwish Gul

© D+C | Development & Cooperation 2018

Mahwish Gul is from Islamabad and studies development management at Ruhr University Bochum and the University of Western Cape in Cape Town. Her Masters programme is run by the AGEP, the German Association of Postgraduate Programmes pertaining to international development.