In Pakistan this past year, the number of hateful attacks against transgender people has highlighted the degree to which their right to life and dignity is routinely denied. Take, for instance, the case of Alisha, a member of the Trans Action Alliance in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, who was shot eight times in Peshawar in May 2016. When she was brought to the hospital, the staff wasted time debating whether to place her in the male or female ward. Farzana, a fellow activist accompanying Alisha that day, said the staff asked whether Alisha was HIV-positive. They also asked for Farzana’s phone number and invited her to a dance party. All while Alisha bled.
Hers was the fifth reported case of violence against a trans-activist in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa last year. Then in September, Deedar was shot in Peshawar, and in November, Guria was killed in Faisalabad. Both were transwomen. As Farzana puts it, “(They) were easily targeted because they have no social support.”
The most publicised case occurred in Sialkot in November, when a video of several men whipping a transwoman, Shanaia, was leaked. Another transwoman present at the scene, Julie, later spoke about being tortured and raped by the same men. Both videos force viewers to bear witness to the terrible pain that a country’s wilful silence has burdened Shanaia, Julie, and many others with. Both videos force us all to ask urgent questions. How do we bear witness — as mere voyeurs of injustice, or as allies in the fight for justice? And what of those whose pain we do not see, whose names we do not know?
Since humiliation occurs at every level – social, political, and economic – the response must too happen at every level. Social support must involve an acceptance of what “transgender” or “trans” means: a person “whose gender identity — the innate, deeply felt psychological sense of being a man, a woman, or neither – is different [from] the sex assigned to them at birth”. But when we rarely speak equally of two genders, male and female, when will we speak equally of three — male, female and trans?
An important step was taken in 2012, with the inclusion of a third gender in national identity cards. Also, 50 clerics issued a fatwa in June 2016, approving transgender marriage. The fatwa calls acts that “humiliate” transgender people as “haram”, and acknowledges their equal inheritance and funeral rights. Yet, it also says that marriage is only permissible between transpeople with “visible signs” of being both male and female, i.e., who still fit into traditional, separate roles. It does not say whether it is also haram to humiliate a tranperson who is not Muslim.
Fluidity seems to terrify this nation. We are forced into one binary or another, whether involving gender (male/female), religion (Muslim/non-Muslim), language (Urdu/English) or cultural identity (Indian/Arab). Even the predominant image of a transperson is a static one, stripped of nuance. It is of someone dressed garishly who dances at weddings, begs and sells sex, without regard for the fact that we all have identities that crisscross and change. We are inherently intersectional, and need safe spaces that permit this movement, this growth.
Not all women or transwomen wear make-up, and those who do, often celebrate this choice, as women and transwomen. Tomorrow, the celebrations may change. Who can say? Similarly, many transpeople hired to dance at weddings embrace a South Asian tradition that sees them as portents of good luck. There is pride and intersectionality: why negate these things by trying to fit them into predetermined categories of acceptability and deviation?
The fear of what falls outside the realm of either/or stems from a deep desire to control and eliminate difference. This past year has shown how gruesomely the desire morphs into violent expression. Social awareness, however urgent, is not enough. Political action must be taken. Instead of scorning transpeople who beg while refusing them jobs, we need laws prohibiting their discrimination, and laws allowing their legal testimony as transmen and transwomen. Though the state has a duty to protect all its citizens, this is meaningless without laws that specifically protect transpeople.
Without a three-pronged approach – social, political and economic – to safeguard their rights, there will only be more Alishas left bleeding between male and female wards, and more Farzanas left mourning: “The whole society was responsible for her death.”
This article was published as part of a special editorial project '2016 In Broad Strokes' for the Herald's Annual 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is the author of four novels, including 'Thinner Than Skin'.
The artist teaches at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture.