Pakistan is a diverse nation, where every region possesses an identity which is not just limited to their language, color or region, but rather encompasses everything from cultural norms to religious interpretations. Amongst this unique blend of people from a variety of backgrounds, there is a part of the society, which has been stigmatized and overlooked for years now, and that is the ‘third gender’ or ‘transgender’. The last decade has seen a significant change in terms of the rights of the Transgender people in Pakistan.
In 2012, a legislation was passed to allow the option of a third gender on the national identity cards issued by NADRA. Another notable legislation was the political inclusion of the transgender community by Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in July 2017. Punjab AIDS programme also signed a memorandum to provide free treatment of diseases like HIV, Syphilis, Hepatitis etc. to the transgender community. However, a momentous announcement was made on 4th October 2017 by AIOU (Allama Iqbal Open University) that promises to provide free education to this segment of the society. In the last year’s convention of Transgender Activists, Neil Buhne a resident coordinator from UN said that Pakistan is already far ahead of many others when it comes to providing legal rights to transgender individuals. A population census was conducted in August 2017, which showed that the total number of transgenders in Pakistan is around 10,400. This census has been challenged and criticized as an under estimation by various organizations, such as the Pakistan Transgender support network. However, this still shows a positive step by the Government towards accepting this segment of society. The reality is that all the legislations and laws by themselves cannot achieve the required results, unless the transgender community itself becomes willing to accept the change and come out of its tightly knit circle of rules and norms.
Generally referred to as transsexuals, transgender and khawajasira, these people include anyone who exhibits characteristics from both genders. Existence of Khawajsiras has been a part of Pakistan’s culture and their role has been historically defined as the ones who either provide entertainment through dance and music or indulge in beggary on the roadsides. When a family abandons a child because of their unidentified gender, they turn in the baby to a ‘guru’ of the khawajasira community. The ‘guru’ who is predominantly the leader of the transgender community in that region decides the way ahead for that baby and usually that solely involves training in make-up, dancing or beggary. This is a vicious cycle, where everyone, from the malicious society to ignorant parents and illiterate gurus, are to be blamed. Everyone plays a significant role in creating and nurturing a new breed of illiterate transsexuals who spend the rest of their lives either begging or relying on dancing and sex work for survival.
A guru generally demands ‘Chittai’ and hookah paani as a daily or regular stipend from their chelahs (followers). The guru-chelah system thrives on the unacceptability of the third gender by the society and leaves no other way out for the ‘chelahs’. Most of the transgender men don’t have gurus as they can’t indulge in dancing or sex work and, hence, are neither accepted by the society nor by the transgender people themselves.
So what if the government has announced the recognition of this unaccepted gender in national ID cards, will that in any way force the ignorant parents to accept them? The government is trying to provide them education, but will these gurus let these financial investments go off the hook that easily? Even if the hospitals treat them for free, will they be able to assimilate into normal daily life?
The solution doesn’t lie in legislation or laws alone, rather it is an intricate web of poverty, ignorance and inhumanity which needs to be untangled. There needs to be awareness about existence the third gender in other roles apart from the general concept of dancers and beggars. There needs to be an assurance of no public humiliation of such children in schools and universities. There needs to be an initiative which protects the innocence of transgender children from the guru-chelah system, even if they’re abominated by their own parents. It doesn’t matter how many of those children out there are transgender, 10,000 or a million, this vicious cycle of atrocity needs to end and the change has to begin right now. Awareness and change are two long-term goals, which might take years to bear tangible fruits, and hence, it all needs to start now!