The South Asia Channel

A first for Pakistan’s third gender

A first for Pakistan’s third gender

The roots of Pakistan’s inhospitality towards its minorities can be traced back over three and a half decades to the military dictatorship of Ziaul Haq – the man singlehandedly accountable for the rise of fundamentalism and retrogression in the country. Today, however, a different narrative runs through the progressive steps being taken within Pakistan’s legal system – a trend exemplified by the ongoing Supreme Court case against the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) concerning missing persons, and even more so in the issue of transgendered Pakistanis.

In most parts of cosmopolitan Pakistan, something adds color to the busy traffic- and pedestrian-swarmed streets besides glossy cars and oversized billboards. Batting their mascara-drenched fake eyelashes, prancing about in gaudy Indian-soap inspired attire around every posh traffic light in Karachi, hijras – as Pakistan’s transgender population is known – turn many a frown upside down after a hard day’s work.

Going car window to car window ‘demanding’ money, clapping their hands, flirtatiously twirling their hair while humming a popular Bollywood tune, these powerfully persuasive hijras entertain with a kind of street comedy unique only to them. But not all are entertained or amused; some are even offended by their presence.

It has never been easy being a minority in Pakistan and matters are bound to get worse if the minority is a sexual one. In a Muslim society, where patriarchal orientation reigns supreme and we are constantly battling gender discrimination, the transgendered obviously have little or no space in the social setup of things.

For the past six decades, hijras in Pakistan have been isolated and denied any form of identity, along with basic human rights such as education, employment, and healthcare. Disowned by their families and mocked and ridiculed by the rest, hijras find shelter among their kind under gurus – leaders of small scattered transgender communities – who give them food and wage in return for their service and contribution to the group. With not many open doors in sight, they beg, dance and engage in prostitution as their only means of livelihood, becoming soft targets for harassment, violence, abuse and rape, mostly in the hands of the local police.

Their story is, or one could easily say ‘was,’ painful until the summer of 2009. Today, despite all of Pakistan’s supposed intolerance, its long-oppressed transgender minority not only has an identity under which they are recognized as lawful and respectful citizens of the state, but they also have civil rights, the most groundbreaking being the right to vote – unthinkable just a few years ago, especially in a country like Pakistan. The landmark move has not only paved the way for hijras to vote in the upcoming general elections, but also to nominate their own candidates for parliament. In its wake, popular hijra leader and a prominent member of the Pakistan She-male Association, Shahana Abbas Shani, has announced that in the upcoming general elections, she will run as an independent candidate for the Muzaffargarh constituency of the provincial assembly in southwestern Punjab. Topmost on her agenda is the demand for reserved seats for hijras in the Pakistan National Assembly. And why not? For now, more than ever, it is very much possible.

Very few could have fathomed that Dr. Muhammad Aslam Khaki – an attorney specializing in Islamic law and probably the most unlikely defender of hijra rights in Pakistan – would turn out to be the man behind it all. Stirred into action in 2009 after an atrocious incident in Taxila, near Islamabad, where local police reportedly attacked and raped a group of transgender wedding dancers, Khaki filed a private case in the Pakistan Supreme Court. He persuaded the court to officially recognize hijras as a third gender under the Pakistani Constitution, a major step towards giving them their due stature and respect in society.

In 2009, Khaki estimated the transgender population in Pakistan to be around 80,000. However, a Reuters report in December the same year put the figure at around 300,000. The conflicting numbers further reinforced the Supreme Court’s orders to the government, given in June that year, to set up a commission to conduct a census of hijras, so that a more precise figure could be obtained.

The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry – a "hero" of the transgender minority – took this unlikely revolution forward. Following his orders, the Supreme Court for the first time in the history of Pakistan, granted the transgender community their own gender category under Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). This means that hijras can now, per their own will, have male transgender, female transgender or intersex written on their national identification cards – a landmark headline coming out of retrogressive, conservative Muslim Pakistan.

The Chief Justice’s decision spurred a series of successful follow-up rulings by the Supreme Court. Various judicial, law-making and enforcing committees were formed, and orders were released to both national and provincial authorities to safeguard the hijras’ newfound rights in matters of inheritance, employment and election registration. The police, all the way down to the district level, were especially warned to cease harassment and intimidation or be subject to serious prosecution.

Bearing in mind that having its own gender label will not solve all of the hijra community’s problems, the Supreme Court made further recommendations, the most revolutionary being in the professional field. Per official orders, if qualified, hijras were now to be given preference for civil service jobs for affirmative-action reasons. According to the ruling, a transgender applicant with a 10th-grade education was now deemed to have the same qualifications for government work as a non-transgender person with a bachelor’s degree.

But that wasn’t all. In 2010, hijras were also appointed as tax collectors to utilize their "special" persuasion skills. They now knock on the doors of people who haven’t paid their taxes and ask them to pay up. To deal with those who aren’t willing, they make what they are infamous for making – a scene, which works like a charm every time. The experiment has been judged something of a success by the local authorities, too, with several teams collecting hefty amounts of unpaid dues.

Monitoring the progress of Khaki’s case through periodic hearings — about 20 of which have been held so far — both the Pakistan Supreme Court and Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry still have a cumbersome task at hand — acceptance, implementation and rehabilitation. The challenges of eliminating stereotypes from the minds of common Pakistanis, providing equal opportunities to everyone in all professions and in all spheres of life, is much easier said than done. This series of landmark rulings undoubtedly constitutes the first step in the right direction, but there still remains a long list of problems that cannot be resolved by legislation; problems like stigma. The recent surge of positive activity means there’s definitely hope beyond the traffic light for the beleaguered hijra community in Pakistan.

But the fight has only just begun. Khaki and those working alongside him have received death threats from various Pakistani fundamentalist Islamist groups including Shabab-e-Milli – a branch of the youth wing of Pakistan’s main religious political party, Jamaat-e-Islami – for promoting homosexuality in the Islamic state. The Supreme Court decision has undeniably come both as a shock and a blow to all such elements promoting intolerance and violence in the country. But nothing seems to be holding this group back.

"The chief justice says we are God’s creation," says Almas Bobby, President of the Pakistan She-male Association and one of the key frontrunners of Khaki’s case. God sure helps those who help themselves.

Rabail Baig is a Pakistani journalist based in Boston.