Earlier this year, Sarah Gill, a transgender woman, became Pakistan’s first transgender doctor by attaining a Bachelor of Medicine and a Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) from Jinnah Medical and Dental College in Karachi. Similarly, Nisha Rao became the first transgender lawyer in Pakistan when she graduated law school in 2020. Kami Sid has proven herself as a transgender fashion model, famous for her skills and bravery. These trans-women have become a ray of hope for the oppressed transgender community in Pakistan.
The progress of some transgender people in Pakistani society is an example of an improving system, moving towards inclusivity of gender minorities. On the flip side, it is worth mentioning that from time immemorial, we have seen how these gender minorities called Khawaja Siras have suffered at the hands of conservative sections of society. Most notably in 2009, the incident in Taxila, when police robbed and beat several transgender people, astounded many. Again in 2016 in Peshawar, a transgender woman died after hospital staff delayed her treatment because they couldn’t decide whether to place a transgender patient in the male or female ward – another example of the gender humiliation culture impregnated in our society.
The estimated population of transgender people in Pakistan is around 300,000, although the actual number could be higher. Transgender people face various challenges and they are harassed and side-lined constantly.
While diversity brings people into the workforce, it does not solve the dilemma of ‘inclusion.’ The judicial system has time and again proceeded to broaden rights for transgenders and took an essential step in 2012. In the judgment Dr. Muhammad Aslam Khaki v S.S.P. (Operations) Rawalpindi (PLD 2013 SC 118), the Supreme Court instructed the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) to give equal treatment to transgenders in terms of Article 25 of the Constitution 1973 by creating a third gender category on the national identity card to show that they belonged to a ‘third sex.’ Radically speaking, the judgment was still discriminatory, as it required transgenders to get medically tested in order to prove their gender identity.
The dearth of protection homes for transgender people has given rise to the Guru Chela system in the country, were transgender people can seek acceptance, but are sometimes demotivated to seek proper education and instead resort to begging, dancing, sex work, and special appearance at weddings and birthdays.
The judgment also limited identity cards to those transgenders whose parentage was known. This was a major set-back for the community, as many transgender children are abandoned by their families who drop them in orphanages, such as the Edhi homes. The jurisprudence which was developed after the passing of the Transgender Bill 2017 resulted in the composition of the golden law a year later. The legislative intent of the Transgender Persons Act 2018 was to provide self-identification to the transgender and protect many of their rights as citizens. The act also protects their right to inheritance, even when their families are unwilling to do so on their own.
Although the existing laws made an improvement in the lives of transgenders, there are various loopholes when it comes to the law’s implementation. The dearth of protection homes for transgender people has given rise to the Guru Chela system in the country, were transgender people can seek acceptance, but are sometimes demotivated to seek proper education and instead resort to begging, dancing, sex work, and special appearance at weddings and birthdays. On a regular basis, transgenders still suffer from discrimination and sexual exploitation in jails, hospitals, and other places.
It is worth mentioning the efforts being carried out by the current government to open doors for transgenders to apply for government jobs by allocating them seats. The transgender model Rimal Ali was appointed as the Welfare Wing’s Gender Discrimination Coordinator of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in January. The private sector is also working to develop non-discriminatory practices for gender minorities; the news channel Kohinoor has hired a transgender newsreader Marvia Malik. The owner of Kohinoor stated that her selection was solely based on merit.
Even after civic identity and other rights have been granted, the transgender community still suffers from the mental torture of stigmatization and remain vulnerable to physical abuse. It will take several years for the rigid mindset of Pakistani society to change towards full acceptance of transgenders. The emergence of transgender doctors, lawyers, and others in society is a good step to counter the deeply embedded customs and rituals that deny equal transgender rights in the country.