It’s about time we put an end to transphobia in Pakistan

Published: May 17, 2015
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Transgender protesters in Rawalpindi demanding justice for the murder victims. PHOTO: ZAFAR ASLAM/EXPRESS

In recent weeks, on two different occasions, four transgender people were brutally murdered in Rawalpindi. The police believe that financial disputes between different groups in the transgender community may be the cause of the crime but religious extremism has also been linked to the killings in this often-oppressed community. 

The exploitation of transgender people, known as transphobia, is not something new in Pakistan where sexual minorities are often victims of verbal, physical and sexual abuse. For instance, recently two transgender people were killed and another was gang-raped by an armed assailant who tried to abduct them in Swabi.

Transgender or transsexual are the terms used to describe a condition where one’s gender identity, what the person feels or believes he or she really is, differs from one’s assigned sex. In Pakistan, condescending and derogatory words as ‘hijra’ and ‘khussra’ are used to address a transgender person. Other words such as eunuchs, hermaphrodites, transvestites and homosexuals are loosely and often used to describe most of the gender variants in society.

In 2011, the Supreme Court of Pakistan identified eunuchs as a distinct gender and advised the National Data Base and Registration Authority to issue them a distinct identity card so that they could have the much-deserved respect and representation in the community.  Little has changed in the lives of half a million members of the transgender community since then. The court action was a step in right direction but unfortunately further respect has not materialised. Most members of the transgender community still dance and sing at social celebrations such as marriages, child birth and different fairs and festivals. Only a few have moved into the broader community.

Transgender people enjoyed an important status in Mughal and princely courts in India. Many scripts, paintings and songs talk about their presence in the majestic gardens and royal courts. The Indian transgender activist, Laxami Narayan Tripathi, who recently visited Pakistan to promote transsexual rights said in her interview,

“Before the British came, we were at least treated with dignity and respect in society.”

She rightfully mentioned that sexual rights forums, for the most part, neglected the gender non-conformist population mostly.

The first Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that,

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

And these laws apply to transgender people as well. These people are as human as others, with the same range of social, emotional and material needs. To create the awareness and understanding of the issues one lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual (LGBT) advocacy group in Pakistan works under the slogan ‘Don’t hate us, know us’.

I am directly involved in the care of a few teens who come to my hospital to learn about transition from one gender to other. The process of helping people transition from one sex to another requires the involvement of parents, teachers, state and health teams. Even in progressive places like New York City, the people seeking sexual change can become victims of bullying and abuse. The recent coming-out of Olympic gold medallist – otherwise known as step-father of the Kardashian sisters – Bruce Jenner as a transsexual female created enormous buzz around the world. Olympians like her and Balian Buschbaum, another transgender person, have broken the stereotype of transsexuals and provided much needed role models for the community.

In Pakistan, we need to educate families and communities not to think about gender and sex as an entirely binary phenomenon. Instead, we should recognise that many individuals identify with a gender other than the one they have been given at birth. Gender-variant children should be raised with the same affection and love. Once grown, they should be treated with respect and dignity in the society as well. Many transgender people can develop psychological problems because of being abused, feeling guilty, having relationship problems, or for unresolved unconscious conflicts.

I would like to see the transgender community included in all areas of life such as teaching, medicine and sports, like many countries in the West. It should not be the fate of these people to earn their living by dancing, begging or prostitution only.  We need to create a pluralistic society in which people should not be discriminated against because of their personal lifestyle. It is time to re-visit the all-inclusive teachings of Sufi poets such as Amir Khusro, Bulleh Shah and Madho Lal Hussain who used frequent gender-diverse expressions in their work to spread love and care for humanity.

Hassan Majeed (MD)

Hassan Majeed MD

The author is working as a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, NY. He is a marathon runner and his interests include art, culture, travel, gender, human rights, mental health, and education. He tweets @HassanMajeedMD (twitter.com/HassanMajeedMD)

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