BY AYESHA ISHTIAQ
2018 has seen a global increase in social awareness. Centuries of tightly held customs are being brought down as the world hails a new era of equality and opportunity for all. Adding to these movements, Pakistan broke one of South Asia’s most prevalent cultural taboos. On May 8, 2018, members of the Pakistan General Assembly voted on the country’s first ever bill regarding transgender rights with positive results. The bill was then signed into law by Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain. For the world and the South East Asian peninsula, this is a highly unprecedented move and remains one of the most progressive laws in the entire world. For Pakistan, this marks a landmark step towards fostering prosperity for a minority group that has long faced immense discrimination.
In previous years, transgender people in the region have been deprived of basic human rights. Their lives have been littered with abuses and violent crimes such as rape and trafficking. Transgender people have been excluded from the official census reports and have been denied identification cards, passports, and driver’s licenses. This is because their gender identity makes it difficult to label them as female or male on the identification cards. Unable to obtain official citizenship, they are denied education, proper jobs, the right to an inheritance, the right to vote, to drive, to own land, and to run for office. This seemingly unimportant denial of a card has forced them into extreme poverty as they succumb to derogatory works such as prostitution, begging, or being wedding entertainment.
The transgender population has been shunned for so long that a reliable statistic on their exact number in the country does not exist. In census reports, transgender individuals were forced to identify themselves as disabled because of a belief that they were sick or unhealthy. However, independent advocacy groups, like Trans Action, have been trying to record the exact number of transgender people within Pakistan and have reported that transgender people make up about 500,000 of the total 217 million population.
As a predominantly Muslim country, Pakistan has strict laws regarding the mixing of men and women. Due to this, many facilities have segregation to avoid the mixing of the two sexes, such as separate wards for women and men in hospitals. Due to the lack of gender inclusive hospitals, healthcare is a massive problem for transgender people, and they are often refused service on the basis of which gender ward should they be admitted in. As a result, transgender individuals have been deprived of medical assistance and healthcare.
Transgender social mistreatment is worsened by the horrifying crimes committed against them. They are often the target of gang rapes, public beatings, and shootings, but these crimes are rarely reported. They also disproportionately face police brutality as officers do not register First Information Reports (FIR), refusing them the basic rights awarded to citizens.
However, the growth of social media has begun to shed light to these dark sides of the country, creating awareness of the issues facing transgender people. What most news channels will not report as a result of religious and cultural stigmas is being spread on platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. All these platforms have played a massive role in revealing the dark realities of the attacks and crimes committed against the transgender community. In the last year, several attacks took place, notably in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) region – an area associated with orthodox extremism. In 2015, a transgender person returning from a wedding event became the victim of a gang rape. The following year, the shooting of Alisha – a transgender activist – caused a massive uproar in the community when she was denied medical treatment on the basis of her gender. These events have opened a dialogue, especially among young individuals, causing many human right activists to speak up.
The role of television has also been massive in combating the extreme stigmatization and violence that the transgender community faces. Many filmmakers and producers have taken up the cause and aired socially aware TV serials. In 2016, a controversial serial – Khuda Mera Bhi Hai (God is Mine As Well) – was aired. It was almost banned by PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority), but was re-broadcast due to immense popularity among young demographics. This TV serial’s goal was primarily to take on the rights and conditions of transgender people, as it showed a mother’s struggles with having a transgender child.
Following positive reviews, this serial created a massive dialogue regarding the deteriorating conditions of transgender individuals. While there is still backlash from the extremist segments of the society, it is important to take into account the positively changing mindset towards the country’s minorities – a significant move coming from the conservative and proud country.
Pakistan took another remarkable step early in 2018, when it appointed its first ever transgender woman as a news anchor. As the population still simmered in the glee of such an immensely supported achievement, KPK took the step of issuing its first ever driving license to 15 transgender people.
To top it all, Pakistan passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act this May. The bill reads, “Transgender people constitute one of the most marginalized communities in the country and they face problems ranging from social exclusion to discrimination, lack of education facilities, unemployment, lack of medical facilities and so on.” This act prohibits any form of discrimination or harassment against transgender persons in the country.
This law will recognize a person’s own gender identity and gives transgender individuals the same rights as as any other citizen. This bill asks the government to protect this community’s rights and from crimes against them. This bill also asks the government to afford transgender individuals the right to property, to inheritance, and to run for office and the general assembly, among many other basic rights. It also calls for “Protection Centers and Safe Houses” for the transgender community. These centers would “ensure the rescue, protection, and rehabilitation of transgender persons” while also providing “medical facilities, psychological care, counseling, and adult education” to transgender Pakistanis.
While many are still on the fence when it comes to the implementation of this bill, many activists and critics have accepted the importance behind such a step for the community of Pakistan. This move allows Pakistan to be one of the few countries in the world to have taken this step and acknowledged the rights of transgender people. It brings the country out of the hard shell of strict, deeply-rooted values and showcases the fact that it cares for the people regardless of the corruption in its laws and justice system.
While there is a long way to go, it is important to acknowledge that parts of Pakistani society have become much more socially aware of transgender human rights and the necessity of working towards the achievement of peace and prosperity for all members of society.