Global Human Rights Defence

Transgenders' Rights in Pakistan: Steps Forwards and Backwards
Transgender people attend prayer in Pakistan’s first church for transgender worshipers. Source: © AP/File, 2020 (https://www.dawn.com/news/1654439/court-seeks-agps-help-on-pleas-against-law-about-trans-people)

Author: Giovanni Falcinelli

On October 6th, 2021, tragedy struck the transgender community in Karachi when a 47-year-old  transgender person was killed in an acid attack in the Korangi area (Dawn, 2021a). The police said  neighbours heard the victim screaming at around 8 am. The incident appears to be the consequence of a  personal dispute between Ghulam Mustafa, the victim, and a friend of his, identified as Qaiser Fayyaz  (Dawn, 2021a). However, this is only the first of a series of significant events regarding the LGBTQ  community.  

Approximately one week later, at a news conference at the Peshawar Press Club, Transgender Alliance  president, Farzana Jan, condemned the several murders and incidents of violence against transgender  people in the past years, which forced many of its members to leave the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa  (Dawn, 2021b). Some other members of the community alleged that influential people were involved in  violence against them, however, the police were reluctant to take action against the accused persons.  “We are not safe in Peshawar, not even in the presence of police”, they said (Dawn, 2021b).  

During the news conference, a police party, led by DSP Ihsan Shah, entered the Hall of the press club to  stop the critics that were directed towards the police force. This provoked even more chaos, as the press  club finance secretary, Yasir Hussain, condemned the interference as a violation of freedom of the press.  The officials threatened him with dire consequences (Dawn, 2021b). This accident portrays the difficult position of the transgender community in Pakistan, but it also showed the community’s courage to speak  up for themselves and to condemn abuses and mistreatments against their community. Nonetheless,  the officials’ threats display open hostility towards the transgender community, even from one of the  institutional bodies that should protect them.  

Ayesha Mughal, a transgender lecturer, said the transgender community had become a vulnerable group  as 80 transvestites had been murdered in the last four years, however, none of the killers had been  convicted and continue to roam free (Iqbal, 2021). Furthermore, another threat this minority is facing is a  set of petitions aimed at challenging the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018, for being  repugnant to Islamic injunctions (Iqbal, 2021). 

Pakistanti transgender rallying on World Aids Day in Karachi. Source: © Asif Hassan/AFP/ Getty images, 2013  
(https://www.dw.com/en/pakistan-religious-groups-seek-amendment-to-sex-change-law/a-59875405) 

The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, enacted in 2018, is of key importance to provide legal  recognition to transgender people and prohibit discrimination and harassment against them. More  specifically, the law places an obligation on local governments to provide for the welfare of the trans  community (Iqbal, 2021). Transgender persons are guaranteed all fundamental rights enshrined in the  Constitution of Pakistan, including the right to property inheritance, voting, education, employment,  healthcare, access to public places, and to hold public offices (Ingber, 2018).  

A full bench of the Federal Shariat Court (FSC), including the Attorney General for Pakistan (AGP), Khalid  Jawed Khan, heard the petitions moved by Irfan Khan and others (Iqbal, 2021). During the hearing, the  Court observed it had become necessary to seek assistance of the AGP since Pakistani society appears to  be split in two sides: some that believe transgenders’ rights are protected by the law, and some others  arguing that the law is against injunctions of the religion (Iqbal, 2021). 

As early as 2012, the Pakistani Supreme Court held that transgender persons were entitled to all rights  guaranteed by the constitution. The issue arose back in 2009 in Taxila, when police arrested several  transgender people and, consequently, discovered the poor living conditions of this community (Iqbal,  2021). They lived in sizeable communities, divided into clan groups, residing mostly in slums and presided  over by a guru, they were not able to travel openly in trains or buses, and they were deprived of other  fundamental rights (Ingber, 2018). Dr Khaki filed a petition for the welfare of the unfortunate and

vulnerable people by seeking the establishment of a commission to emancipate non-straight men  ostracised by society for no fault of theirs (Iqbal, 2021).  

Since that petition, 11 years later, many things have changed in Pakistan for the transgender community,  starting from the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018. The story of Nisha Rao is a clear  example of the positive impact this law has had on the community: she went from begging for money on  the streets of Karachi to becoming the country’s first transgender lawyer.  

Rao left her house at 16, moving to Karachi where she lived in a transgender colony and went on to attain  an undergraduate degree in political science and economics, and a master’s degree in international  relations. In 2018, she earned a law degree from Sindh Muslim Law College (McShane, 2021). In doing  that, she has been the first transgender person to gain admission in an MPhil programme at Karachi  University as well as being the first transgender student to have gained admission in any programme  since the university’s inception (Wasim, 2021). Moreover, Rao funded all her studies through a  combination of loans and begging on the streets for more than 8 years, an experience she characterised  as routinely dehumanising (McShane, 2021).

Nisha Roa (right) and Vice Chancellor of Karachi Univeristy (left) Source: © transpridesociety, 2021  (https://images.dawn.com/news/1188386/nisha-rao-is-the-first-transgender-student-at-karachi-university) 

Ms. Rao advocates for Pakistan’s transgender community both inside and outside of the court as the  founder and president of the Trans Pride Society, a non-governmental organisation that provides  education, training and advocacy to transgender people in Pakistan (McShane, 2021). Furthermore, she  is currently working to expand the protections afforded to transgender people under the landmark 2018  law, in part by implementing the job quotas for transgender people ordered in the 2009 Supreme Court  ruling, which Rao said are not currently being enforced (McShane, 2021).  

Another recent encouraging and optimistic story is from Rani Khan, who founded this year Pakistan’s first  transgender-only madrasa, or Islamic religious school, in Islamabad. This madrasa is an important  milestone for the LGBTQ community in the overwhelmingly fundamental Muslim country, where  transgender people face ostracism, although there is no official restriction on them attending religious  schools or praying at mosques (Shahzad, 2021). 

The stories of Nisha Rao and Rani Khan show the progress and the very first important steps to include  the LGBTQ minority in universities and educational settings, as well as in religious contexts. If the  Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018 is questioned and potentially considered opposing  Islam, this could undermine years of efforts of inclusion and acceptance of the transgender community,  erasing all the progress that has been achieved so far. The news conference at the Peshawar Press Club as well exposes the fragile balance between the demands from the community and the willingness of the government to really stand up for them. 

Asad, Malik. (October 26th, 2021). Federal Shariat Court declares swara as un-Islamic, published in Dawn  https://www.dawn.com/news/1654025/federal-shariat-court-declares-swara-as-un-islamic. 

Dawn. (October 7th, 2021a). Transgender killed in acid attack in Karachi, published in Dawn,  https://www.dawn.com/news/1650501/transgender-killed-in-acid-attack-in-karachi.  

Dawn. (October 13th, 2021b). Govt asked to take steps for protection of transgender community,  Published in Dawn https://www.dawn.com/news/1651730/govt-asked-to-take-steps-for-protection-of transgender-community.  

Dawn. (October 14th, 2021c). Transgender Protection Centre opens in Islamabad, published in Dawn  https://www.dawn.com/news/1651873/first-transgender-protection-centre-opens-in-islamabad.  

Iqbal, Nasir. (October 28th, 2021). Court seeks AGP’s help on pleas against law about trans people,  published in Dawn https://www.dawn.com/news/1654439/court-seeks-agps-help-on-pleas-against-law about-trans-people.  

Ingber, Sasha. (May 9, 2018). Pakistan Passes Historic Transgender Rights Bill, published in npr,  https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/05/09/609700652/pakistan-passes-historic transgender-rights-bill?t=1637324358079.  

McShane, Julianne. (June 1, 2021). Pakistan’s 1st transgender lawyer went from begging on the street to  fighting in court, published in NBC News, https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/pakistan-s-1st transgender-lawyer-went-begging-street-fighting-court-n1269090.  

Shahzad, Asif. (March 22, 2021). A transgender Islamic school in Pakistan breaks barriers, published in  Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pakistan-lgbt-madrasa-idUSKBN2BE030.  

Wasim, Syed. (September 13th, 2021). Nisha Rao is the first transgender student at Karachi University,  published in Dawn https://images.dawn.com/news/1188386/nisha-rao-is-the-first-transgender student-at-karachi-university.  

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Kenza Mena
Team Coordinator -China

Kenza Mena has expertise in international criminal law since she is currently pursuing a last-year Master’s degree in International Criminal Justice at Paris II Panthéon-Assas and obtained with honors cum laude an LLM in International and Transnational Criminal Law from the University of Amsterdam. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in French and Anglo-American law. 

Since September 2021, she has been the coordinator of Team China at GHRD, a country where violations of human rights, even international crimes, are frequently perpetrated by representatives of the State. Within Team China, awareness is also raised on discrimination that Chinese women and minorities in the country and, more generally, Chinese people around the world are facing.

Kenza believes that the primary key step to tackle atrocities perpetrated around the world is advocacy and promotion of human rights.

Aimilina Sarafi
Pakistan Coordinator

Aimilina Sarafi holds a Bachelor’s degree cum laude in International Relations and Organisations from Leiden University and is currently pursuing a Double Legal Master’s degree (LLM) in Public International Law and International Criminal Law at the University of Amsterdam.
She is an active advocate for the human rights of all peoples in her community and is passionate about creating a better world for future generations. Aimilina is the coordinator for the GHRD team of Pakistan, in which human rights violations of minority communities in Pakistan are investigated and legally evaluated based on international human rights legal standards.
Her team is working on raising awareness on the plight of minority communities such as women, children, religious and ethnic minorities within Pakistan.

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Gabriela Johannen
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João has an extensive research engagement with subjects related to International Justice in general, and more specifically with the study of the jurisprudence of Human Rights Courts regarding the rise of populist and anti-terrorist measures taken by national governments. He is also interested in the different impacts that new technologies may provoke on the maintenance of Human Rights online, and how enforcing the due diligence rules among private technology companies might secure these rights against gross Human Rights violations.

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Environment and Human Rights Coordinator

As the Environment and Human Rights Coordinator, Célinne is passionate about the health of our planet and every life on it.

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Team Coordinator and Head Researcher- South America

Angela holds a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) from Vitória Law School (FDV) in Brazil. Her research combines more than five years of experience conducting debates and studies on the rights of homeless people, the elderly, children, and refugees. Besides that, she also volunteers in a social project called Sou Diferente (I am Different in English), where she coordinates and takes part in actions aimed at the assistance and the emancipation of vulnerable groups in the cities of the metropolitan area of Espírito Santo state (Brazil).

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Team Coordinator and Researcher
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Pedro holds an extensive background in Human Rights, especially in Global Health, LGBTQ+ issues, and HIV and AIDS. He is currently finishing his Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations and Affairs at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Moreover, he successfully attended the Bilingual Summer School in Human Rights Education promoted by the Federal University of Minas Gerais and the Association of Universities of the Montevideo Group. Besides, Pedro Ivo has a diversified professional background, collecting experiences in many NGOs and projects.

With outstanding leadership abilities, in 2021, Pedro Ivo was the Secretary-General of the 22nd edition of the biggest UN Model in Latin America: the MINIONU. Fluent in Portuguese, English, and Spanish, Pedro Ivo is the Team Coordinator and Head Researcher of the Team Africa at Global Human Rights Defence. Hence, his focus is to empower his team from many parts of the world about the Human Rights Situation in the African continent, meanwhile having a humanized approach.

Alessandro Cosmo
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Alessandro Cosmo obtained his B.A. with Honors from Leiden University College where he studied International Law with a minor in Social and Business Entrepreneurship. He is currently pursuing an LL.M. in Public International Law at Utrecht University with a specialization in Conflict and Security. 
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Veronica is a Colombian lawyer who leads our team of Japan, Sri Lanka and Tibet. She holds a master’s degree in Public International Law from Utrecht University. She has experience in Colombian law firms. Here she represented clients before constitutional courts. She also outlined legal concepts to state entities such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ombudsman’s Office on international law issues.

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Wiktoria Walczyk has joined GHRD in June 2020 as a legal intern. She is currently coordinator and head researcher of Team Nepal and Indonesia. She has an extensive legal knowledge concerning international human rights and is passionate about children’s and minorities’ rights. Wiktoria has obtained her LL.B. in International & European Law and she specialised in Public International Law & Human Rights at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. Moreover, she is pursuing her LL.M. in International & European Law and focusing on Modern Human Rights Law specialisation at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. In order to gain an essential legal experience, Wiktoria has also joined Credit Suisse’s 2021 General Counsel Graduate First Program where she is conducting her legal training and discovering the banking world. She would like to make a significant impact when it comes to the protection of fundamental human rights around the world, especially with regard to child labour. 

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Fairuz is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD Africa. Her primary focus is to establish and coordinate long-term research projects regarding the differentiating human rights dealings of vulnerable and marginalized groups in continental Africa, as well as conducting individual research projects.

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Coordinator and Head Researcher, Political Advisor
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parties and as well seek domestic funding.

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