BY: NADIA ZAIDI
Pakistan is one of the most conservative countries in the world. Its conservatism on issues like women’s rights have continually made headlines on major world networks. The blurred lines between religiosity and governance have been a contentious issue that has forced third-party intervention and global skepticism.
That’s why a landmark decision to recognize trans communities in June 2017 may have surprised many. The decision to include a third gender category on its passports makes it one of the rarest countries in the world to do so.
In fact, currently many developed countries, including the United States offers no such option. The category includes trans people, or those without a specified gender or specific genitalia.
Pakistan is fairly liberal when it comes to trans rights. Back in 2012, the trans community was awarded a third gender identity option on national identity cards. They are also able to identify themselves in the latest 2017 census.
These are great strides for a country that has long remained hush on the issue of its large trans communities. According to Trans Action Pakistan, trans people (or hijras) make up half-a-million of the country’s population.
New legislation that will further recognize the rights of trans people is set to come. One bill sets to protect trans communities from a range of offences including sexual harassment. This would call to amendments to the Pakistan Penal Code.
Another bill called the Transgender Persons Bill would covey a myriad of rights, which include the right to hold public office, as well as to access public spaces.
Nevertheless, Pakistan – as any other country in the world – is filled with contradiction. Homosexuality remains illegal in the country, and therefore discrimination against such groups is an ongoing problem.
Pakistan has a longstanding, complicated history with its hijra (South-Asian term for a transgender woman) population. Interestingly, hijras were celebrated members in ancient religious texts. They were considered powerful, and people who brought good fortune and fertility. There was a lot of revered mysticism around hijras.
It wasn’t until the 19th century when the British gained control of India, when the rights of hijras were in question.
Today, hijras can be seen walking the streets of Pakistan, adorned in flashy jewellery, bright makeup and tapping car doors to ask for money. They usually ask for cash by making declarations of good will for the families of donors. They are also popular additions at baby showers and weddings.
There are clinics in Pakistan that are willing to offer gender reassignment surgery to trans populations.
Still, this doesn’t mean that they are exempt from discrimination. The proposed bills and amendments to traditional legislation reflect the tumultuous history that Pakistani hijras have and continue to face daily.
Currently, there are steps towards building mosques that will welcome the presence of hijras. They are not welcome to pray in the same mosques as the rest of the population in Pakistan, and are exempt from the rights to proper burial ceremonies after death.
Pakistan may be making greater strides towards progressive politics in its efforts to acknowledge disenfranchised groups like the hijras.