Pakistan's transgender community takes another step forward

2018-03-05 21:03


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Lahore - In her 20s, Jannat Ali, who was born male, dreamt of walking outside as a woman. Society wanted her to live in one of two gender boxes. But she never fully identified with either.

"I always felt uncomfortable sitting with boys," she said, describing her experience while in school.

Ali, who now identifies as a transgender woman, would save pocket money to take dance classes, telling her family she was attending yoga.

"When I was dancing, I was free - wherever I was," she told Al Jazeera.

Her dance performances have been broadcast on Pakistani TV networks, attracting publicity and, at times, drawing the concern of her family.

"What would people say," her family members would say, fearful of inviting societal disapproval.

Although Ali is among the few transgenders who retains family support, it was not always this way.

At one point, Ali's sibling accused her of tarnishing the family name and contributing nothing to the family, even though she was their primary breadwinner.

"I have been earning for seven years," Ali recalled telling her family.

"I did not save anything for myself."

While the term "transgender" gained widespread usage in the West during the 1970s, in South Asia the term usually refers to a more specific, and older, group of individuals known as hijras, some of whom prefer to be known by other designations such as khawaja sira.


Historically, hijras' blurring of traditional gender boundaries was seen as granting them mystical powers, such as the ability to cast alternately auspicious or pernicious invocations over newborns or at weddings.

Hijra communities form around guru-chela relationships, similar to the master-disciple relationships of Sufism, providing a source of protection and support for individuals cast out by their families.

While guru-chela communities retain their importance to this day, there are also an increasing number of individuals who have adopted a global transgender identity outside these traditional institutions.

Regardless of whether they become chelas, many transgender Pakistanis are also trying to maintain relations with their families.

However, increasing familial acceptance has brought its own set of challenges, particularly in the realm of inheritance.

In Pakistan, inheritance portions are often determined by gender, with women receiving half the amount of men.

Inheritance can generate family conflicts, but for transgender individuals, it was worse: members were required to undergo a medical exam to determine if their share would correspond to that of a male or female.

This February, a senate committee determined that the country’s transgenders could inherit property without a medical board deciding their gender for them.

Accordingly, transgender individuals will receive an inheritance based on the gender identity they have transitioned into and chosen for themselves.

"Transgenders have the right to live with dignity and avail all fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution," Senator Sehar Kamran said.

Rights and equality

The senate's decision marks the most recent development in a long history of rulers recasting hijra's position in South Asian society.

While hijras have long languished on the economic periphery - surviving by soliciting alms at shrines, birth ceremonies and weddings - during the Mughal period, hijras held venerated positions in the courts guarding harems.

The British, however, viewed hijras as a menace to public decency and morality, attempting to criminalise their begging and even classifying the group as a "criminal tribe" in 1871.

In the decades after Pakistan declared independence from the British in 1947, successive governments have sought to protect the sexual minority and guarantee their rights.

Like neighbouring India, Bangladesh and Nepal, Pakistan recognises hijras as a third gender, thanks to a 2009 Supreme Court decision that awards them classification as a distinct category.

In 2011, the group received the right to vote, and a year later, the government awarded them the right to inheritance, promising them equal treatment under the law.

Last year, Pakistan also counted transgenders as a separate category in the census.

But for the transgender community on the ground, these developments often feel distant.

"The main area of concern for transgenders is the accessibility of services," said Qamar Naseem, a programmed coordinator at Blue Veins, a Peshawar-based organisation that works with the transgender community.

Systemic violence

Transgenders contend with systemic violence and discrimination in accessing health services, affordable housing, transportation and alternate livelihood options, he said.

Recent events have also underscored the tenuous footing on which their rights rest: In January, a transgender was gang-raped in Pakistan's northwest by a criminal group.

In another gruesome case in 2016, Alisha, a transgender who was gunned down in Pakistan's northwest, died when a hospital tried to decide whether to admit her to the male or female wing.

Still, for transgender activists, there is a widespread understanding that legal protections can make a difference.

Today, Ali is free to perform Sufi, the classical Bollywood dances on stage, without familial pressure constricting her choices.

"Dance is my best friend. At least I have a platform where I can be myself," she said.

She even recently joined other transgender individuals in taking up a mentor, saying that if she is ever spurned by her kin, there would be a back-up option:

"I will have another family," she said, half-joking. Right now, however, she said there's no issue between her and her family.

"There's a tolerance - maybe because I'm taking care of them."

Read more on:    pakistan  |  lgbti rights

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