“It took the government over 60 years to accept us as humans and that too only after the Supreme Court (SC) passed the order that we should be registered as khwaja siras,” says Bindiya Rana, the president of the Gender Interactive Alliance, a non-government organisation working for the rights and uplift of the transgender community. She is happy with the SC order but says more needs to be done. “At least the judiciary is listening and doing its bit, but we have yet to see the government come forward without the SC nudging it,” she tells the Herald. “So far, only directions are being issued.”
Khwaja siras, as they are now called in the official parlance (see Identity Crisis), have long been one of the most marginalised communities in South Asia. Although there is no specific data about their numbers, estimates suggest that Pakistan has a population of around 800,000 transgender people. “You might say that it is an overestimate but many members of our community have been registered as male or female in the national identity database. Now that the SC has issued a directive for us to be registered as khwaja siras, a better picture will emerge,” Rana explains.
The SC’s directive was issued after a 2009 petition filed by advocate Dr Mohammad Aslam Khaki and this after an incident in Taxila where policemen maltreated and sexually abused transgender persons returning from a wedding. “The Taxila incident motivated me to speak for transgender people. They are as human as us and, according to the Constitution, the state has a duty to protect its citizens regardless of their gender,” says Khaki. The SC agrees. A judgement issued on March 22, 2011 states, “Their rights, obligations including right to life and dignity are equally protected … The government functionaries both at federal and provincial levels are bound to provide them protection of life and property and secure their dignity as well, as is done in case of other citizens.” In addition to ordering the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) to register transgenders as the third sex, the court has asked provincial social welfare departments to work for the community’s support and development.
Perhaps most importantly, the SC ordered the registration of transgender individuals as voters. “You must realise that we were not deprived of voting rights,” says Almas Bobby, the president of the Pakistan Shemale Foundation. “We could vote only as a male or a female,” she says, adding that khwaja siras faced problems getting a National Identity Card (NIC) which would arbitrarily determine their gender as male or female. “Now that we can register as khwaja siras, we can also vote as khwaja siras and this may make more of an impact when it comes to protecting our rights,” she says. In fact, Bobby, a regular on television talk shows and known for her outspoken views on political issues has recently been offered an election ticket by the Awami National Party, the first political party in the country to make such a move, providing her with a platform to highlight issues affecting her community.
The SC has also addressed one such issue plaguing transgenders in Pakistan — parents abandoning transgender children and gurus forcing members of the community into begging and prostitution will face criminal charges, according to the SC verdict. In the absence of parental supervision or their family’s protection, many transgenders have limited means of earning a livelihood. “What options do we have? Over the years we have been forced into begging and prostitution by gurus,” says Bubbly (not her real name), a former transgender prostitute who now dances at events. Abandoned at the age of 15, Bubbly joined a group of hijras (transgender prostitutes and dancers) working under a guru. “The [group] accepted me while my family and society looked down upon me,” she says.
Since the SC verdict, there have been some small improvements in job opportunities for others like Bubbly (see Cast Out) Nadra has reserved seven job positions for transgenders in its offices across Pakistan, the Sindh health department employed khwaja siras to administer polio vaccines and Karachi’s Clifton cantonment board employed the services of a few transgender people for the recovery of dues.
However, in several other areas, progress has been limited. “There was an acid attack on a friend of ours and a group of transgender people were witness to this incident. The police took eyewitness accounts of other people present at the crime scene but refused to even acknowledge what we had to say,” says Rani (not her real name), a transgender living inKarachi. The group received threats and the area police did little to protect them, Rani says. The case was ultimately withdrawn. “We constantly face the threat of physical and sexual abuse,” says Bubbly.
Khaki points out that “existing laws do give [transgender people] support and protection even in the absence of separate laws. For instance, if they were to appear as witnesses in court, their testimony would be taken as either as a male or female (depending on their ID card registration).” But given the bias towards the transgender community, many avoid getting involved in legal proceedings, he says and adds that further legislation may be needed to overcome such problems.
Ali Lahooti, who works as a legal adviser at the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment disagrees, at least as far as the laws on sex, violence and abuse are concerned. “The laws do not discriminate. What is needed is the implementation,” says Lahooti. He explains that transgender individuals can invoke criminal laws covering rape and sodomy if they are subjected to sexual abuse. “Sexual harassment has always been a crime. The latest legislation on sexual harassment has made it easier for anyone to file a complaint and transgender people will have to follow the same procedure as others to get their complaints registered,” he explains.
In some other respects, a change in social attitudes is a greater need than further legislation. For instance, despite the SC order that transgenders be given their due share [as a male or a female] in the moveable and immovable properties of their parents according to the law, many transgenders still struggle for inheritance rights. Bobby says she was able to inherit her father’s property because her “siblings were nice and cooperative” while Neena (not her real name), a transgender living in a small city inPunjab, says, “My brothers are lawyers and they made sure that I did not get my due share.” Neena has been living away from her home since she was 16 and her brothers told her that she used up her share of inheritance by receiving occasional grants of money from her parents during their lifetime. “They quickly sold the property. It was too late before I could even claim it,” she adds.
It is hardly surprising that the SC received very little feedback this year when it questioned the implementation of its verdict on inheritance. From among the four provincial governments,Punjabalone responded with four instances where transgender people were given their due share of inheritance. This is crucial especially because inheritance may be a legal and social subject for most other groups in society but for the transgender community, many of whom are beggars or prostitutes, it is a question of financial resources. Lahooti believes new laws may be helpful. “So far, there is no legislation in Pakistan when it comes to the third sex,” he says.
Healthcare and education are other key areas where the transgender community remains extremely marginalised. In one such case, Saniya Baloch, a transgender, faced discrimination when she fell ill and needed treatment. Suffering from leukemia and admitted to the Aga Khan University Hospital, Saniya fought a legal battle to prove that she had the right to free treatment. “We lost Baloch but there are many others who can be saved,” says Rana, who reiterates, “Don’t outcast us.”