#TherapistDiaries: Why are we violent towards the transgender community?

Published: June 2, 2019
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Pakistan had its first-ever Transgender Pride march in 2018. PHOTO: TWITTER/AJPLUS

Not too long ago, I got the chance to watch one of Pakistan’s highest-grossing films. The film was nothing but an amalgamation of misogynist jokes edited together, but what stood out the most to me was just how blatant the movie was when it came to ridiculing the transgender community.

As part of our association with a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working for the transgender community, my friend and I have spent ample time with transgender people, which is perhaps why when we saw that film, it immediately became evident to us that it was mocking the community for that is not how they are in real life.

Transgenders do not necessarily have exaggerated gestures and ways of sighing, nor do they always cross-dress and seduce the other gender so provocatively. They also do not necessarily have to belong to a guru-chela system (though there is nothing wrong if they do). It was thus clearly a poor and transphobic representation of an already marginalised community, but ironically it only generated laughs from the fully-packed theatre hall.

Could this movie’s portrayal of transgenders be considered discrimination? Yes, because they were shown to be harassers who constantly touch and pester men.

However, was this an act of violence against their community? You decide.

Violence, as many would say, is about power. Each and every act of violence that goes on establishes the perpetrator somewhere in the power hierarchy.

Violence is not an isolated act occurring without any prior thought process. The beginning of violence is with thoughts that are discriminatory in nature; a casual joke about being transgender would be enough to get called out as a problematic thought reflective of a troubling mindset.

Thought processes trigger emotions in the perpetrator; emotions that are hateful and aggressive. Emotions such as aggression and apathy towards the suffering of transgender people, or emotions such as a complete lack of empathy to understand where they are coming from or how they must feel as they are harassed, mocked and abused regularly.

These thoughts and emotions are then expressed in form of a behaviour that is violent, such as bullying, harassment, name-calling, acid attacks, shaving their hair off, rape, beating them up, and so on.

It is ingrained in a patriarchal thought process that transgender people are inferior because they challenge and shake the conservative masculinity that aids patriarchy. I remember raising this argument in a discussion recently at a training session, where I argued that we must accept how violence against transgenders is very common in our society, particularly from what is reported in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P). I was told by the locals there that the reason for this violence is not ingrained in discrimination or toxic masculinity but rather in business dealings – entertainment at weddings and private parties – and romantic affairs. I feel that this denial can be pretty much generalised to the men in our society overall.

It seems like an alien concept to us that the real psychological motivation behind committing heinous acts of violence against the transgender community is rooted in discrimination, prejudice and toxic masculinity.

According to masculinities studies, men who are raised in a patriarchal setup are stuck in a system of hierarchy. The lower you are on the hierarchy of power, the less masculine you are perceived to be, and hence are attributed as ‘weak’ in the social capital framework. The lower you are on the hierarchy of power, the more you will be subjected to violence and discrimination. For instance, men with white-collar jobs are exploited by heads at corporate, while men with blue-collar jobs are exploited by the white-collar workers, and so on goes the hierarchy.

Whatever time I have spent with transgender women has told me just how tragically their love lives end. Their lovers conveniently throw acid on them or beat these women to death. They get away with it, because the justice system has loopholes and because the agents of this process – the police, for instance – are also a product of this patriarchal system with an innate hatred and tendency to discriminate against the transgender community. Unless a case is highlighted over social media or by human rights workers, the system is never motivated enough to listen to the transgender community, let alone ensure justice.

I remember Salima*, a transgender woman who struggled her entire life with emotional abuse at the hands of her parents. Growing up, everyone around Salima could notice that she was not comfortable with the body and sex she had been born with. Yet people failed to care about her struggle and instead chose to bully and ridicule her.

Salima tried extremely hard to be masculine in order to avoid this bullying and emotional abuse at the hands of her classmates, former friends and family members. She struggled for a decade, but could neither accept the masculinity she tried to fake upon herself nor could she accept herself as a woman. This transition was made worse when a taxi driver tried to rape her while she was returning alone from a friend’s wedding in the said taxi.

The taxi driver sensed her transition, despite her being physically male and dressed like one, which led to him saying some of the most insulting things about her gender.

This event was just the beginning of the violence that was to come in Salima’s life.

Meanwhile, Salima’s friend Shiza* was violated by her lovers for the sake of money. She was unable to find a partner who would not physically or emotionally abuse her, and if she did find someone who did not abuse her, they would turn out to only be interested in her entertainment business and money.

The physical spaces where violence against transgenders is committed in our society are abundant. Transgenders are stigmatised and are even refused treatment in a majority of our hospitals. They are targeted in markets and can’t even buy groceries in peace. They are not allowed to enter malls. They are not taken seriously in police stations. They are ridiculed in educational institutes and even religious institutes providing education.

They are systematically removed from all public spaces, except for the ones where they are most vulnerable.

Salima couldn’t even attend her sister’s wedding, as everyone thought people would consider her as a transgender entertainer instead of the bride’s sister. She asked me,

“Doctor, don’t these so-called women dance on weddings? If I dance, I’m a third rate transgender woman spreading vulgarity and then they tell me this will break my sister’s marriage.”

Is our society so prejudiced that we have literally left no space where the transgender community can feel safe and be at peace without being judged? For now, the answer remains a resounding yes.


(*Names have been changed to protect identities and doctor-patient confidentiality.)

Zaofishan Qureshi

Zaofishan Qureshi

The author is a Clinical Psychologist and an Educationist based in Islamabad. She tweets @Zaofishan (twitter.com/Zaofishan)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.