How NCA broke societal barriers by redefining transgender roles in Pakistan
The arts being an unconventional career choice in a society that still views the holy trinity of business, medicine and engineering as the only acceptable professions, artists are more attuned to the plight of those struggling against stereotypical expectations. Perhaps that is why the recent initiative taken by the National College of Arts (NCA), Rawalpindi, to employ members of the transgender community at the college, has been received with such warmth by students and faculty alike.
People are recognised in society by their professions. Pursuing the career of your choice can be a priority over a vocation with better financial remuneration. Veena, a young transgender, who now works as an administrative assistant at the fine arts department at NCA, used to be a professional dancer. However, she has chosen a modestly paying desk job over a highly lucrative dancing career. She made a choice to live life on her own terms, and has no regrets.
Director of NCA’s Rawalpindi campus, Nadeem Omar Tarar, explains how the idea of employing Veena came about. He says,
“In a discussion with Usman Mughal, who was conducting his thesis on employment problems of the transgender community, and his supervisor Dr Abu Bakar, we agreed that the gender role of transgenders as sex objects can be redefined by giving them opportunities of performing regular jobs. I asked Usman if we could find an educated transgender person to hire.”
Mr Mughal arranged a meeting between Dr Tarar and Bubli Malik, a guru of the transgender community based in Rawalpindi. Bubli introduced Veena, who was later selected for the job. Veena has a working knowledge of the English language and a command over Urdu, both in speech and writing. The Principal of NCA, Dr Murtaza Jafri, and faculty members of the college fully endorsed the initiative.
Bubli runs her own NGO called ‘Wajood’, which works to promote transgender rights. She is an inspiration for her protégés and encourages them to actively participate in mainstream activities. She was contacted when the NCA cafeteria became vacant and was asked if she could help with its running since she had experience managing a small eatery. The NCA Rawlpindi campus cafeteria is now being run by ‘Wajood’, as a pilot project, and has two people from the transgender community and one male member of the organisation employed on the campus premises.
There is light at the end of the tunnel.
A few years back, the Supreme Court passed a judgement instructing NADRA to issue NICs to members of the transgender community, and the rights that come with it. As a result, several members of the transgender community announced their candidacy for the General Elections in 2013. The government’s sanction of a two per cent job quota has also served the transgender interest, and opened new avenues in career opportunities for them.
Hajira, who is designing a vocational training centre for the transgender community as her architectural thesis project at NCA, Lahore, says,
“Most occupations have nothing to do with gender. Encouraging the transgender community by giving them opportunities of choosing from diverse career options will eventually empower them, which in turn will make them an acceptable part of our society.”
Abandoned by the ones who brought them into the world, members of the transgender community often grow up without their parents – the ones who are supposed to love them unconditionally. They remain excluded by the public at large.
The transgender community exists on the fringes of society, making their living in the only ways we permit them to – begging, dancing, or selling themselves into prostitution. With their roles as dregs of society already laid out for them, transgenders in Pakistan usually grow up not choosing their professions, but their professions choosing them.
The Indian transgender rights activist, Laxmi Tripati, says that the current role of the transgender in post-colonial Pakistan is a legacy of policies introduced by the British during their reign over the subcontinent. The transgender community once enjoyed managerial positions in harems and a wide range of respectable career opportunities were available to them under local rulers and Nawabs. The dogma of disenfranchisement and criminalisation introduced a century ago by the British continues to this day.
“I made myself comfortable by accepting that the reason of my discomfort wasn’t them, but the way I saw them,” says Abeera, a third year student at the National College of Arts, Rawalpindi.
As dregs of our society, the transgender community finds contentment in whatever crumbs of happiness we deign to throw their way. It is a shame that the people whose blessings we actively seek on such auspicious occasions as weddings and birth ceremonies be relegated as a base sect. We, as a society, need to perform a much needed transition from barely tolerating our marginalised brethren to wholeheartedly accepting them as members of our community at large.
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