Understanding Transgender Identity

Transgender reflects a group of people who enjoys the least amount of respect or rights in Pakistan. Due to the controversial nature and typical mindset of people, the subject of Transgender rights in Pakistan is not even discussed in sophisticated circles. Most people do not even consider them as a part of their community; massive rejections are often faced by transgender in almost all the parts of Pakistan.

The term ‘Transgender’ is often used interchangeably with terms such as transsexual, gay or lesbian, male-woman, eunuchs, shemales and cross dresser. However, based on research, it can be safely suggested that there are some fine differences that may help in delineating these individuals:

Eunuch: The term which is typically used for a male who is castrated. The castration is a medical technique in which the testes of the male or ovaries of the female are made non-functional; this can be achieved surgically or through some other non-conventional technique. Historical records reveal that this category of eunuchs was first identified in Sumerians.

Hijra: The term or community of people is most commonly found in South Asian countries (like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh) and refer to males who intentionally adopts a female character such as dressing up like females (in terms of clothing and wearing makeup, jewelry etc.) The concept of Hijras dates back to Indian Sub-continent when the Mughal’s promoted cross-dressing practices as a form of art or amusement for the elite class. In Pakistan, hijra’s usually live in a community setup under a ‘guru’ who acts as their leader or head of the family.

Transsexualism: The condition is more commonly identified in the western world in which the person feels serious discomfort in his/her own gender and develops a desire to be the member of opposite sex. In other words, individuals usually develop a strong dissatisfaction towards their biological gender and some even take a step further and go under the knife to get what their heart desires. One very hip example is famous Caitlyn Jenner (former Brice Jenner). In our society, however, this condition or phenomenon is treated like a mental illness and is critical and controversial to be discussed due to religious aspects and cultural values.

Transgender-ism: Sometimes this condition is misunderstood by people as a form of intentional perversion. In reality transgender-ism is very frequently a result of hormonal changes and mental status issues; however the person is generally completely normal physically with an XY chromosome (or XX chromosome in case of females). In transgender-ism, the fetus undergoes some abnormal brain integration changes during pregnancy that may also affect the hormonal balance. As a result, the child is born with a neurological sex (also termed as brain sex); thereby culminating in transgender-ism. Gender dysphoria is common in such individuals because their innate gender identity is opposite to that of their appearance or the way they are grown up by their families. Although physically they are normal and have their specific genitals (as indicated or specified by their genetic combination); but experience gender dysphoria due to neurological sexual issues.

Transgenders at the receiving end of “Hate”

One of the most sensitive social issues of Pakistan is discrimination and violence against the transgender community. Transgender, also known as the “third” gender, are considered an abomination by the society. Transgender are frowned upon and are considered as degenerates, being treated as if they are not even human. Transgender represent a group of people who enjoy the least amount of respect and rights in Pakistan.

Due to the controversial nature and the typical uptight and backward mindset of people, the subject of transgender rights in Pakistan is not even discussed in the sophisticated and literate part of the community. The transgender community has been rebuked all over Pakistan and is not even considered as equals to the other members of the society.

As a society fostering a number of stereotypical taboos and inhumane norms, the Pakistani transgender society has always been the sufferer of oppression and skepticism. There is an inborn fear of the transgender amongst the “normal people” and this fear is inflicted since childhood. Pakistani parents are insecure and believe it’s inappropriate for their child to interact with a transgender hence developing this feeling of reluctance towards them.

I’ve often thought about why there is a general hatred for transgender in Pakistan. The term carries different implications for different people, but one basic implication is being born and not knowing which gender you belong to. People say that transgender can only sing and dance, I wonder who came up with this spiral of degradation. They are not considered equal and forced to live in a segregated society with their own kind in extreme poverty. Most transgender are illiterate, as the notion of a transgender receiving an education was considered unreal.

 

Transgender are subjected to violence in Pakistan. A few months back a transgender activist who fought for the rights of transgender was shot in Peshawar. KPK transgender alliance coordinator was shot six times and when driven to the hospital the doctors made them wait for an hour trying to figure out whether to shift him to the male ward or female ward, which eventually led to Alisha’s death. Transgender are not only subjected to physical violence but sexual harassment and rape as well. Pakistan’s constitution contains laws in written form that safeguard the rights of transgenders but unfortunately, when the time comes to enforce the laws, no as such implementation of these said laws can be seen from the government’s end

Transgender Pakistanis – Making ends meet

Riffie Khan has a Double Master’s degree from Shah Abdul University in Shikarpur in Economics and Political Sciences. However, despite her academic achievements, she has been unable to hold down a job. In 2003, Khan was forced to leave her job at the National Medical Centre in Karachi, where she worked as front desk officer, because she did not fit in. Khan is one of many transgender people in the country who suffer in their professional and personal lives due to discrimination. “It’s the educated people that upset me the most,” she says. “When they discriminate against people like me, it hurts even more.”

There are an estimated 500,000 ‘third-gender’ citizens in Pakistan, including cross-dressers, transsexuals, eunuchs, hermaphrodites, and transvestites. In 2012, the Pakistani government recognized the transgender population and a three-member bench of the Supreme Court, headed by former chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, ruled that the transgender community is entitled to rights guaranteed in the Constitution to all citizens, including the right of inheritance. Prior to this, as transgender did not classify themselves as ‘male’ or ‘female’ on official documents, they were barred from basic rights, such as voting. In the general elections of May 2013, five members of the community also contested polls.

However, while their rights are guaranteed on paper, members of the transgender community say they do not have these rights in practice. While the Supreme Court ordered that free education and free health-care must be guaranteed to the community, provincial departments have yet to implement this decision. Riffie Khan says that while many transgenders describe themselves as “professional wedding dancers”, they are forced to turn to prostitution to make ends meet.

 

Khan has been lucky to land a job in the Social Welfare Department. She works in Karachi with Bindiya Rana, the founder of the Gender Interactive Alliance (GIA) — an organization working for the equality and civil rights of transgender people in Pakistan — and runs a small home-based clothing business. “I have been denied all the opportunities I deserved even though I have the required level of education,” Khan claims. “I have a double Masters, yet I am only paid Rs15,000 per month and I have been forced to leave every job I have ever had.”

In 2012, the transgender community was promised a 2% quota in employment by the government. However, community members say the quota has not improved their situation. “Our status of employment has remained the same,” says Khan. She says when she raises the issue at the Social Welfare Department where she works, she is told, ‘It will happen in due time’. “Why can’t the department open up a section of Khwaja Sarras as well, to examine the employment rate and opportunities for us?” she asks. “We keep reminding them that it has been three years since the government promised us the quota. But things are still the same.

 

Transgender in Pakistan

Transgender reflects a group of people who enjoys the least amount of respect or rights in Pakistan. Due to the controversial nature and typical mindset of people, the subject of Transgender rights in Pakistan is not even discussed in sophisticated circles. Most people do not even consider them as a part of their community; massive rejections are often faced by transgender in almost all the parts of Pakistan.

According to recent research studies conducted on transgenderism, approximately one out of 50 children are identified with a transgender tendency/ potential. In other words, about 2 percent population of Pakistan is affected by transgenderism.

In our society, transgender are usually first identified by the families. The community often mistakes them as pre-homosexuals and most Pakistani families become aggressive towards them. For example, strict warnings are given to them to change their attitude and most of them are rejected by their communities and loved ones.

I have often wondered why it is that generally there is hatred for ‘transgender’ in Pakistan. The term means different things to different people. At a very basic it means being born not knowing which gender you belong to. A myth seems to have formed that they cannot do any work except for sing and dance. I wonder who started this, the downwards spiral of degradation. Now they are not treated as equal, they live in secluded communities with their own kind, often in extreme poverty. Most are uneducated as the notion of a transgender child being brought up in a normal household and studying in a mainstream school is not an acceptable reality.

As Pakistanis, we need to realize that this is not merely a war that these individuals have to fight they are human beings, just like us, and deserve as much of a right to education and these individuals have voices that are not heard by anyone. We need to be the voice that speaks on their behalf, fights for their rights and makes living for them less painful.

 

Transgender in Pakistan: A “Forgotten People”

At an open market in the district of Mehmoodabad in Karachi, Miss Bindiya Rana, 35, starts another day at work selling clothes. Living in one of the poorer parts of the city, like many others here she faces a daily struggle to make ends meet. Yet, of strong build with dyed hair and wearing heavy make-up, she and others like her face a bigger challenge than most.

Part of the transgender or hijra community, social stigma and discrimination make them outcasts in Pakistan’s highly conservative society. While there are no official precise figures on the number of transgender or third-gender people living in the country, estimates range from 80,000 to 350,000-500,000, with perhaps 60-70,000 in Karachi alone.

From a lower middle-class family, Rana first became aware of her identity as a child. In public she dressed like a boy, but alone in her room she would wear girl’s clothes, lipstick and practice dancing. After running away from home for two months, her parents gradually came to accept her identity. Most are not so lucky. Shunned by their families, many have no option but to join close-knit hijra communities led by older gurus who take on the role of ersatz guardians, offering them protection.

With few completing formal education, employment opportunities are limited. Many have to endure ridicule by dancing openly in the streets or at weddings to scrape by a living, or resort simply to begging. Others are involved in sex work with little education about safe sex and the dangers of HIV.

Vulnerable to physical and verbal abuse, they also have to bear the humiliating attitude of police officers, doctors at hospitals, and public officials, complains Rana. Reports of beatings and other forms of violence directed against them are commonplace.

On May 25, a transgender individual by the name of Alisha died in a hospital in Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after succumbing to gunshot wounds, with some blaming delayed medical care for her death after other patients allegedly complained and doctors debated whether she belonged in the male or female ward. Located in the northwest of Pakistan, it is the fifth reported case of violence in the province against transgender this year.

In a scathing editorial, the Daily Times wrote that, “In the light of apathetic attitude and its justification by hospital authorities, it would not be farfetched to conclude that an abhorrent form of apartheid mentality prevails in Pakistan in which transgender elicit such contempt that their lives are not given even an iota of value.”

Transgender Health

Two cases this year that of a transgender person dying in a Peshawar hospital as healthcare providers deliberated over which ward to put her in; and of another who, after being diagnosed as HIV positive, was forced to live near a garbage dump until she died — highlight the insensitivity that prevails towards this marginalized community. Exact numbers for Pakistan’s transgender population are not known. Media estimates range between 80,000 to 500,000, but this figures lack credibility given that the last national census was conducted in 1998 and did not account for a third gender.

While many civil society organizations have recently organized seminars and protests for the security of transgender, they ignored the most important thing this community needs: access to healthcare. Healthcare is a universal right, but across the world particularly in Pakistan transgender persons face barriers in accessing it. Nor am I referring exclusively to hormone and transition-related care; many face tremendous barriers when trying to access the healthcare system for common illnesses and injuries. In recent conversations with members of this community, they revealed that they often don’t access hospital services to avoid ridicule and discrimination.

The transgender community in Pakistan is underserved. They can’t access the education system; they can’t have regular jobs like those who identify themselves as either male or female. Their livelihoods often depend on dancing at weddings or as sex workers in the absence of other opportunities. Once they are over 45, many turn to begging. Due to the nature of their occupation, they are at high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. The government, unfortunately, has ignored their plight.

The barriers to accessing healthcare are multilayered. Discrimination from medical staff is the biggest hurdle. The recent case in Peshawar should have been a catalyst for improving transgenders’ healthcare access, but few took that incident seriously. The transgender person was shot eight times. She lay on a stretcher. However, instead of arranging for emergency treatment, the hospital staff passed derogatory remarks and allegedly even propositioned sex to her and her friends. She eventually died.

While the case received media attention, even that did not galvanise the healthcare sector into making the necessary changes for the transgender community. There are thousands of others like her.Then we witnessed another side to the problem. Diagnosed HIV positive, a transgender person was evicted from her residence by her colleagues and friends. Her plight threw light on another type of barrier: lack of knowledge within the community. HIV/AIDS is a taboo issue, and while no one wants to be infected certain professions increase the risks of contracting it.

Even though the entire community is vulnerable to this, they deserted a friend who contracted it. It shows the lack of knowledge and empathy towards peers. Had they known that HIV is not contagious like the flu, and that their support could have helped increase her lifespan, they might have opted to help. Had they known that there are specialised HIV treatment centres, they might have saved her life by getting her the healthcare she needed.

Rights of Transgender

In last elections, many transgender in Pakistan wrote the history by casting their vote to choose their political representative. This decision of Supreme Court was successfully presided by the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mr. Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.

In 2009, Supreme Court also passed the order of including the category of ‘third gender’ in the national identity card form. Transgender in Pakistan were awarded the right to REGISTER as a third gender on their CNICs in 2012. a three-member bench of the Supreme Court, headed by former chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, ruled that the transgender community is equally entitled to rights guaranteed in the Constitution to all citizens, including the right of inheritance after the death of parents, job opportunities, free education and health care.

However, while their rights are guaranteed on paper, members of the transgender community say they do not have these rights in practice and provincial welfare departments have yet to implement the decision. As a result, they continue to face discrimination from society. They largely depend on a livelihood of singing and dancing at weddings and birth celebrations. They are also treated as sex objects and often become the victims of violent assault.

The supreme court of Pakistan has legally declared recently that transgender have equal rights and are a normal citizen of Pakistan. The latest decision includes equality in all aspects including rights in inheritance after the death of parents, job opportunities and hiring of individuals etc. In 2009, Supreme Court also passed the order of including the category of ‘third gender’ in the national identity card form. In fact, in the last elections, many transgender in Pakistan wrote the history by casting their vote to choose their political representative. This decision of Supreme Court was successfully presided by the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mr. Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhary.

Besides government, several non-government bodies are also taking an active interest in improving the quality of life in the transgender community. For example, one such name is Gender Interactive Alliance. Although, this is perhaps the first initiative taken by Pakistani Government to safeguard the transgender rights in Pakistan, I best hope that this will bring a true change in the mindsets of people as well. It is high time we start respecting individuals based on their individuality and not our judgment of their character and sexuality.