Transgenders' Rights in Pakistan: Steps Forwards and Backwards
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
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.
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