The Transgender Dilemma

The debate surrounding the transgender issue has been a hot button one throughout the year. In an in-depth piece for FYI, Aqsa Junejo takes a nuanced look at the various intricacies of the issue.

 “Will you ever let your brother marry a transgender”?

I was dumbfounded at this surprise question by a transgender I recently met, Rifee Khan, who was extremely disturbed over a religious decree, saying transgender men and women have the right to marry under Islamic Law. I failed to understand what Khan thought was wrong with the fatwa when she explained, “We are not even considered as humans, we are not given our basic rights, we live our lives in isolation and outcast is what we call ourselves and now the marriage debate”, Khan feared a lack of acceptance while answering the question. She demanded social and moral acceptance first and then marriage liberty.

Four years after the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s grant of equal citizen’s rights to the transgender community in the country, the situation seems far from resolved. The transgender community continues to face huge challenges to earn a livelihood. The right to inheritance, which was also part of the Supreme Court decree, seems a rather unattainable goal yet for the 450,000 something transgender citizens in the country, an estimate by Gender Interactive Alliance, and a non-government organization for the rights of the transgender community currently only operating from Karachi.

Rifee Khan is one of them and among the 25,000 that reside in Karachi alone. Khan, who holds two master’s degrees, says her education could only be possible when she hid her sexual identity from people around her. “After I completed my education, I declared my sexual orientation to friends and family. They detached from me instantly, denying me every right to work, to social respect and the right to call them family.” This discrimination does not begin at birth for anyone, Khan explains, adding that in most cases they are bombarded with hate and disgust after disclosure of their sexual orientation.

Some make deliberate disclosures; others just can’t seem to hide it, being reflected in their body language, discourse, life choices and how they carry themselves, Khan adds. She currently works for GIA, and as someone who deals with problems faced by her community on daily basis, she is not happy with the way things are progressing.

According to TransAction Alliance (TAA) Khyber Pakhtunkwa, there were five reported cases of transgender violence this year in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Among which Alisha’s case is the latest, as she was brutally shot eight times by a reportedly displeased customer. She succumbed to injuries in Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar where she was discriminated against while getting treatment.

Despite the Supreme Court verdict in favor of the transgender community, their rights never made it beyond paperwork. GIA Founder Bindya Rana laments that the society lacks the will to practice their lawful rights. Quoting from the Constitution of Pakistan, Rana says the law recognizes them as equal citizen of Pakistan. “What else would ‘there shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex’ mean in Article 25?

The employment situation is grimmer. After the Supreme Court ruling, the Sindh Social Welfare Department hired three transgenders for the Department, in addition to announcing two per cent job quota for the transgender community. Two years after, the number of transgender employees in the Department remains unchanged.

A Department official, who did not want to be named, said it was mostly because there weren’t enough qualifying candidates for the jobs that had opened in the last two years. He said the Department would never make discrimination on the basis of a candidate’s sex, but minimum qualifications were a mandatory requirement.

Khan has an answer to this, too. Speaking from personal experience, she points out the lack of awareness and tolerance she has witnessed for the transgender community at educational institutions in the country; and the unwillingness of administrations to grant them admissions. “We don’t want dramas, but we need to be accepted at colleges and universities to become qualified for job opportunities.”

Khan and Rana hold the Pakistani media partially responsible for their plight for their insufficient attention to the issues of the transgender community. They realize how impactful media has been and how crucial a role it plays in framing issues and changing people’s perceptions.

Rana says, “Media objectifies us as entertainers: invite us to parties, make us dance, applaud and the show is over. This is an unfathomable dilemma.” For Rana, there is more to her community than this. She regrets how they are made fun of when they start talking about serious issues, like demanding their rights.

Looking at the situation, one can safely say that the transgender community faces discrimination beyond belief. It’s high time for the recognition of their existence and their rights as equal citizens of Pakistan is accepted beyond court orders. Strategies should be made in such a way that the community is provided economic opportunities so that entrepreneurship is enabled. Facilitate their employment, give them legal acceptance, help them get equal access to education and above all, teach our kids to respect every human.

If one needs their humanity sparked, look no further than what Rana says while narrating her story, “I cry and ask God every night, why was I chosen to be who I am; in the middle of nowhere.”