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The first step in the Pride walk

Last updated: 28 August, 2009
Zofeen T Ebrahim 13:58 IST

Gender Politics

Transgenders in Pakistan are not only ostracised but also feared. Will the recent Supreme Court ruling change the way people perceive them, wonders Zofeen T Ebrahim

Uphill Task: Transgenders are fighting for a life of dignity.In their greed to gain our votes, politicians are now willing to listen to our demands,” said Sapna (24). Dressed in a fitted printed salwar kameez, with a scarf slung around her neck, her freshly shaved and slightly made-up face barely hid the telltale stubble.

Hailing the Pakistan Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in July that gives transgender people citizenship rights, Sapna said it was a step long in coming but one that is in the right direction.

“They are citizens of Pakistan and enjoy the same protection guaranteed under Article 4 (rights of individuals to be dealt with in accordance of law) and Article 9 (security of person) of the Constitution,” ruled a three-member bench comprising Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Justice Muhammad Sair Ali and Justice Jawwad S Khawaja.

Sapna is happy with the ruling but is under no delusion. She knows all too well that a simple order on the part of the apex court will not make much of a difference to the way people perceive the estimated 80,000 transgender people in Pakistan; that they will continue to remain misfits in a monochromatic and increasingly intolerant society. This order, incidentally, comes in the wake of another historic ruling from across the border. In June, the Delhi High Court struck down Section 377 of the CrPC, which had criminalised gay relationships in India.

But for now, nothing can dampen Sapna’s spirit. “We have finally been heard,” she said, excitedly. In its decision, the SC pointed out that being a marginalised section, it was the responsibility of the government to support transgender people financially through social welfare programmes such as the Benazir Income Support Programme and the Baitul Mal.

“For the first time, we will get our own national identity cards. We won’t be forced to fill the ‘sex’ column with the word ‘male’, or cut our hair and don on the male garb to get our ID cards made,” said Sapna, clearly elated at the prospect of finally getting a gender identity that she can fully relate to.

“These are encouraging developments and it is hoped that they will lead to an improvement in the financial and societal status of transvestites,” stated a recent editorial in the newspaper, Dawn. However, it pointed out that there was also need “to address the educational and vocational training requirements of this section of the citizenry”.

Denouncing the term hijras, often used to describe them, Sapna said the accepted word now was moorat - someone who is neither a male nor a female. Interestingly, though, she referred to herself in the feminine gender in the course of our meeting.

“In the Urdu language, a man is called mard and a woman, aurat,” explained Dr Mariya Atif, of Naya Qadam, an NGO working for the sexual health of the transgender community in Karachi, and where Sapna worked as a peer educator. “The new term moorat was coined by them to denote the characteristics of both the genders,” added Atif.

Transgenders can be hermaphrodites (having both male and female sexual organs). Ashi, Sapna’s colleague, put it this way: “We embody a woman’s soul caught in a man’s body.” She emphasised that they are not “men having sex with men (MSMs) or just transvestites (cross-dressers)”.

Transgenders in Pakistan are not only ostracised but also feared. Yet, transgenders like Sapna believe that “life is hell” for them. “I don’t know why we are the way we are, it’s very confusing, even for us,” she said.
“We live under the constant fear of being raped, especially by the police,” said Ashi.

“They arrest us on the pretext that we are involved in sex work, but instead of taking us to the police station, they take us behind the bushes and rape us. Then they take away our mobile phones and all our money before letting us go.”

With no employment avenues open to them, they have for years lived in colonies under one matriarch known as the guru and have resorted to performing bawdy dances or singing at weddings to earn a living. They often collect alms in exchange for showering blessings on a newborn, usually a son.

“People think that because we are different God listens to our prayers; for some reason they also fear our wrath. If we were this lucky, wouldn’t we have been able to use our luck for our own well-being?” reflected Ashi caustically.

Many are seen begging at traffic signals in cities. They also get involved in sex work. “People are stingy. They give us a mere Rs 5 as alms, but willingly offer Rs 100 for sex. We are forced into this immoral life to survive,” observed Sapna, adding angrily, “We are denounced for begging, but the same people won’t give us jobs in their homes, will they?”

Religious jurist, the Islamabad-based Dr Aslam Khaki, had filed the petition that had led to the SC order. “It is only by birth that they are different. This shouldn’t be made a basis for stigma or for denying them their basic right to live with dignity,” said Khaki, who lives in Islamabad.

“They are put in male wards in hospitals and jails. In the public transport system, they are denied a place in the female section,” he pointed out, enumerating some of the many problems transgenders encounter in their daily lives.

For now, the SC has ordered a survey to assess the number of trangenders in Pakistan. “We are also gathering information in order to recommend measures to fully integrate them into society. We are holding meetings with them and the NGOs working with them,” said Khaki.

“I was called for one of the meetings,” revealed Sapna. “I told the officials that if we can get jobs in government offices, that would be a start. I suggested that they fix quotas for us.”

But will the community be able to bear the snide remarks of their ‘straight’ colleagues? “For how long will they scoff at us? They will get used to us, our way of dressing and our gait. What matters in the end is our work, not the way we look,” said Sapna confidently.
She also observed that transgenders can prove their mettle in occupations like catering, beauty treatment, dress designing, embroidery and tailoring. “Just give us a chance, just once,” she implored.

Khaki added that people like her could prove useful in all-women police stations. “They are stronger than women, after all,” said Khaki. There is also a suggestion that a commission be set up to inquire into the status of eunuchs (loosely defined to mean transsexuals, hermaphrodites and transvestites), something similar to the one set up for women, to resolve this complicated issue.

Yet, there is some scepticism. In a country where special groups, that include women, religious minorities and Ahmadis (who have been declared as non-Muslims), are routinely discriminated against, and where laws are often abused to persecute people or to settle personal scores, it is hard to imagine how the ruling could bring about change.

What is needed is a change in attitude towards sexuality and a tolerance of diversity. Sapna is certainly optimistic. “I am very hopeful that a day will come when we will be accepted in this society. It may take years and we may not benefit from the change ourselves, but the first step has been taken.”

For her, this is reason enough to celebrate.

Women’s Feature Service

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