As the first Asian country to legally recognize self-perceived gender identity, Pakistan has become a pioneer of transgender rights in Asia. Unlike some other Asian countries where gender recognition is only adjudicated and decided by the courts, Pakistan has created “one of the most progressive laws in the whole world” concerning transgender rights.
The Transgender Persons (Protections of Rights) Act was passed in March 2018, providing citizens the right to self-identify as male, female, neither, or a blend of both genders as well as protection, relief, and rehabilitation of their rights. The law expressly prohibits harassment of transgender persons, provides for the establishment of protection centers and safe houses, and also requires the creation of mechanisms for the periodic “sensitization and awareness” of public servants such as law enforcement and medical professionals relating to issues involving transgender persons. The comprehensive law even calls for the creation of special vocational training programs specifically for the vulnerable transgender community.
The law provides hope in the transgender communities, but advocates know that enforcement and implementation will be very difficult. Although the preexisting social category, “Khawaja Sira” (transgender people), has existed for centuries in South Asian culture and South Asian society has traditionally venerated them as having spiritual powers, today transgender women have no choice but to seek shelter within a guru-chela system. Unlike a typical guru relationship where gurus act as a religious leader and the chela is a student or disciple, through this system, transgender women are mentored by a guru who pushes them to work as beggars, sex workers, and wedding dancers. Or many are denied jobs merely based on their status. The law specifically prohibits discrimination against transgender people, but what happens if the country does not accept gender and sexual orientation equality?
Though officially outlawing public and private harassment and discrimination, violence and inequity remains within the communities. In 2018, the same year that the law was passed, there were 479 attacks against transgender women reported in one province, some ending in death. At least five hundred transgender people have been murdered since 2015; in 2017, a morgue refused to accept a body of a transgender woman because “it would make their freezers dirty”; and in 2016, a transgender activist was shot six times and was refused medical services, causing her death. However, even after the law was passed in March 2018, violence has not ended as random attacks continue. In May 2018 a transgender woman was killed over a money dispute over Rs 1,000 (US$9). In August 2018, a transgender woman was shot and dismembered. In September 2018, a transgender woman was set on fire by men while resisting sexual assault. In January 2019, transgender people were gunned down by unknown assailants, killing one and injuring another.
The treatment of transgender persons, specifically transgender women, is not surprising as Pakistan is a patriarchal country that continues to dismiss feminism as a threat to traditional social structure. Violence against girls and women are still on the rise as an estimate of one thousand “honor killings” occur yearly. Despite Pakistan’s ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1996 and an emerging women’s movement to combat these backward laws and norms, violence and inequality against women are imbedded in its culture and tradition. Important to note is that Pakistan does not abide by Paragraph One of Article Twenty-Nine of CEDAW which protects its sovereignty against arbitration by a disputing party. Perhaps because of such a reservation, Pakistan’s “compliance”—or really its noncompliance—to CEDAW cannot be challenged.
Despite the difficulties, some transgender people have begun to take a stand as they are going to the courts to petition for more protections from their communities. Many have begun running for office to introduce more empathetic legislation and push the four provincial governments to actually implement, adopt, and fund their own version of the 2018 law.
Nonetheless, homosexuality is still illegal in Pakistan. This has affected the overall acceptance of the larger LGBTQ community. Though there are active, underground communities in Pakistan, being gay is not acceptable and can even be punishable by death. Islamic states like Pakistan have regularly justified human rights abuses against gay persons using religion, and continue to treat LGBTQ individuals as “abnormal and sub-human.” A leading Pakistani Islamic scholar, Imam Sahib, even described homosexuality as a “curable illness” and stated that he would advise a gay man who wanted to remain in Pakistan to live a secret life or leave the country of origin.
This is the reality that the LGBTQ community faces. Though the Transgender Persons Act is impressive in its specifications concerning the protection of transgender persons, how will the lives of the LGBTQ community actually change? Despite instrumental changes that have allowed transgender persons to live freely as their true selves, the road to dismantle decades of stigma and prejudice at a national level will be difficult. If Pakistan remains committed to its traditionalist ways, actual implementation and change will be difficult to attain.