The transgender community’s history on the Indian subcontinent spans thousands of years.
The community has historically thrived, but discriminatory colonial laws left it isolated and trans people faced violence in the subcontinent. Pakistan is no exception.
A group of 26 tribal clerics in Pakistan’s Khyber province on July 7 banned trans people from dancing and playing music during weddings. They ruled clergy would not perform wedding rituals at any marriages that included dance and music.
The clerics in their decree said they will not perform the last rites of an entire family if any one of them disobeys the decision.
The Washington Blade reached out to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif for comment, but his office did not respond.
“They have been doing it for a very long time. In 2015, there were so many cases when trans persons have been killed because of being artists because they were performing, and gender as well. The violence in Khyber province is apparently higher as compared to other provinces. But now other provinces are also replicating,” said Jannat Ali, a Pakistani trans activist and executive director of Track T, a trans rights organization. “Transphobia is increasing in other parts of Pakistan. The government is playing very smartly and being neutral as the current government is a right-wing conservative, and elections are about to come.”
The National Assembly in 2018 passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, which allows for a trans person to be legally recognized. The law also prohibits any discrimination and harassment based on gender identity.
While talking with the Blade, Ali said Pakistan’s trans community faces a dilemma because it feels as though the British colonial era has returned. She said things were moving in a good direction after 2018, but an anti-trans campaign has begun.
“After Khyber, I think, Punjab (a province in Pakistan) will be the next target,” said Ali.
Violence and attacks on the trans community have increased in Pakistan in recent years.
Marvia Malik, the country’s first trans television anchor, in February was attacked outside her home in Lahore.
She gave a statement to the police and later received threatening calls and messages from unknown numbers. A group of people shot at Malik while she was returning home from a pharmacy at night. She survived.
The Council of Islamic Ideology, a constitutional body that advises the Pakistani government and Parliament on Islamic issues, last year said the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018 is not in accordance with the Shariah law. The council further stated many of its provisions are not consistent with Islamic ideology, and warned against it.
“I believe that everyone deserves to be respected and treated equally, regardless of their gender identity. Unfortunately, some people feel the need to discriminate against others based on who they are. It’s important for society to stand up against discrimination and promote acceptance and understanding of diverse identities. Everyone has the right to live their life without fear of persecution or discrimination,” said Anusha Tahir Butt, chair of Transgender Empowerment Organization in Pakistan. “It’s possible that this ban could lead to increased violence or discrimination against transgender individuals not only in Khyber province but also in other parts of Pakistan. People need to speak out against this kind of discrimination and work together to create a more accepting and inclusive society. Governments and institutions need to take a stand against discrimination and protect the rights of all individuals, regardless of their gender identity. Education and awareness-raising can also play a role in promoting acceptance and understanding of diverse identities.”
Butt also said it’s unfortunate that discrimination against trans people continues to take place in Pakistan, despite the country’s nondiscrimination laws. While talking with the Blade, she suggested leaders and politicians need to speak out against such discrimination and work to create a more inclusive society. Butt also said silence on this issue can be seen as condoning discrimination and that is not acceptable.
“This is such an alarming situation for the transgender community because the transgender community is already facing threats in society. In recent times, there was objection over the Trans bill (the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018) — a bill, which was giving fundamental rights to the community. Now, such a threat to the transgender community will only get worse, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is the province where we receive news regarding violence in the community,” said Veengas Yasmeen, founder editor and a journalist of Rise News, a digital news organization in Pakistan.
“In the province, clerics are in the habit of issuing fatwas in 2021 and 2022 where they barred women from going to the market, women should be accompanied by a male companion,” added Yasmeen. “I believe that this is not limited to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa against the trans community, but it may lead to other provinces. If conservatives bar transgender persons from joining events, then how can they survive because the government does not offer them sufficient jobs? Unfortunately, the Pakistan state is as silent as a grave over the issue, which is also strengthening mullahs. If someone is thinking that such a ban is only on the transgender community, they should not forget that conservatives, one day, will move toward you and issue the fatwa against you. I wonder, in the 21st century, some people are afraid of music and dance, both are a form of peace and love. If you are removing peace and love from your society, you are creating a society without souls.”
Pakistan’s religious court in May struck down key parts of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018. The court had said many of its provisions are against Islamic ideology.
“This is indeed sad and distressing on so many levels. The reversal of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act of 2018 has exposed Pakistan’s transgender population, especially transgender women, to increased violence and discrimination,” said Rikki Nathanson, senior advisor for OutRight International’s Global Trans Program. “We recognize that cultures and societies have varying beliefs and practices. In this case, the ban imposed by the clerics reflects their interpretation of religious or cultural norms. It is distressing to learn about the growing violence experienced by transgender individuals in Pakistan, particularly after the recent repeal of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act of 2018.”
“Our partners in Pakistan have informed us about the heightened vulnerability this community faces in other areas, as these attacks have transitioned from virtual to physical acts of violence, some even resulting in fatalities,” she added. “The severity of these threats has escalated to such an extent that several notable transgender activists have been forced to leave Pakistan and seek asylum elsewhere.”
Nathanson added this trend “is concerning and deserves attention.”
“These issues must be addressed to stop the cycle of marginalization that is affecting not only the mental health but overall well-being and safety of the transgender community of Pakistan,” she said.
Ankush Kumar is a freelance reporter who has covered many stories for Washington and Los Angeles Blades from Iran, India and Singapore. He recently reported for the Daily Beast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is on Twitter at @mohitkopinion.