Two groundbreaking bills have been introduced in Pakistan that would provide expansive legal protections to the country’s transgender community.
The Transgenders Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill and The Transgenders Persons (Protection of Rights) Criminal Law Amendment Bill would provide nondiscrimination protections for the trans community and criminalize acts of violence and discrimination.
“I am very hopeful that this law will pass,” said Sabahat Rizvi, a lawyer and advocate within the community who has worked closely on developing the legislation. “If it passes, it will be a great success for the trans community in Pakistan, and rights will be available across the board.”
While Pakistan’s constitution prevents discrimination based on sex, the goal of advocates is to expand its scope to gender expression and gender identity.
“There was always a transgender community in Pakistan, but the movement was really limited,” said Qamar Naseem, a Pakistani advocate.
Naseem works as program coordinator for Blue Veins, a collective working to empower women and trans people, and serves as a member of the advisory board of TransAction Alliance, a group that brings together the trans and intersex communities.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court in 2009 ruled in favor of recognizing trans individuals as a third gender on identity cards.
Now, almost 10 years later, the fight to enact that same kind of recognition has expanded.
A governmental task force was formed less than two years ago to bring together trans individuals, advocates and politicians to examine and guide the country’s focus on issues facing the trans community in Pakistan.
“Despite the decisions recognizing khawaja sara as a gender, it was never reflected in our policies,” said Naseem.
“The government initially did not even consider that there was a transgender community in Pakistan,” added Naseem. “There was no funding, no community-led actions and no sustainability on the ground.”
The support for the proposed legislation is especially remarkable in a country that still criminalizes same-sex activity, a holdover from Pakistan’s colonial era.
“Before the British came, khawaja sara was a proud community that was very dignified and respected,” said Rizvi. “When the British came, they introduced a law that criminalized the community.”
Khawaja sara is one of the names given to third gender people, a concept defined outside of the traditional male or female binary.
“After the partition, initially no one considered that khawaja sara still existed,” said Rizvi. “But they do exist, and they have existed in every era.”
The work of advocates has been twofold: To educate the Pakistani community about the existence of thousands of trans people, and to work to address the violence and rampant inequalities the community faces.
“From January 2015, we documented cases of violence,” said Naseem. “There were 49 killings and 390 cases of violence against transgender people. This has shaken all of the policy makers and mobilized the media.”
Rizvi says that the multitude of terms and definitions in Pakistan for the trans community often leads to even further misunderstanding about the community — and even sometimes within the community itself.
“In the west, they have words like transgender, intersex and queer,” said Rizvi. “We have to be so careful in the words we use because there are many definitions of transgender in Pakistan.”
Rizvi advocates for bringing all of the identity categories under the legislative umbrella of trans in order to address the confusion.
The proposed bills will fill much of this critical gap in identity categories. Sexual violence is most often prosecuted when it involves cases against a woman, leaving out men and trans individuals entirely.
“How can you save people if you will not consider it an offense?” said Rizvi. “Sexual abuse is sexual abuse, whether or not you are transgender.”
Advocates have successfully fought to amend the bill’s language to remove qualifications and tests before a person is considered legally to be trans.
The bills’ first iteration was modeled after a law in India, and it would have required a medical test and screening to determine an individual’s gender identity.
“I raised objection to it because men and women don’t need certification to prove their genders, so why should we?” said Rizvi. “If a person is claiming that they are transgender and not guarding his identity, shouldn’t that be enough?”
Both Naseem and Rizvi spoke with the Washington Blade about the 2016 murder of Alisha, a member of TransAction Alliance board of directors who was shot several times but died as a result of officials in the city of Peshawar “not knowing what to do with her.”
“She was denied basic medical help because they could not decide how to treat her,” said Naseem. “They argued over whether she was a man or a woman, and as a result she lost her life.”
“You cannot imagine their situation,” said Rizvi. “Both the bills contains the guarantee of basic fundamental rights provided to all citizens of Pakistan under its constitution, and assert those rights in favor of the transgender community.”