By Sonya Rehman
Pakistani transgender activist and dancer Jannat Ali has felt like an impostor at times, her gender identity repeatedly challenged. It took years of sleepless nights for her to summon the courage to come out to her parents. But at a TEDx event in Lahore last October, she was swamped by men and women seeking autographs and selfies after a performance and address that drew a standing ovation.
“Till you don’t fight for your rights and your truth, you can’t expect a positive change,” Ali said, and the battle has been long. In the 19th century, the region’s British rulers had labeled the Indian subcontinent’s transgender community a “criminal tribe.” And unlike many other social groups that were criminalized for challenging the British, the transgender communities on both sides of the blood-soaked India-Pakistan border have largely remained mocked, loathed and marginalized in the decades since independence in 1947.
But the reception Ali received at the Lahore event is indicative of slowly shifting attitudes toward the transgender community in otherwise conservative Pakistan, marked by growing acceptance of their gender by the government, sections of society and even religious scholars. They are still victims of stereotypes and violence, and the road to parity with the rest of society remains long and hard. Still, the momentum toward change is building like never before. Islamabad’s Allama Iqbal Open University announced free classes — from junior high to college — for the transgender community in October. This past summer, Pakistan’s government issued its first third-gender passport to a transgender activist, Farzana Jan. In 2009, the country’s Supreme Court urged provincial governments to facilitate rights of their transgender communities; in 2012, the country’s National Database and Registration Authority provided an option for the third gender on its ID cards. In 2017, the national census recognized the transgender community for the first time. And a bill to protect the community’s rights is currently before Parliament.
In 2016, activist Kami Sid became the first Pakistani transgender model to be featured in a fashion photo shoot. Transgender activists and performers participate in popular television shows and on national radio, and as panelists and guests at events and festivals. Ali, valedictorian in her MBA program and a trained kathak performer, was invited last year to speak at a prominent college and a private school. And recently, Chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology Qibla Ayaz labeled transgender discrimination unethical and un-Islamic.
“You can now see how the stereotypes are slowly being broken,” Ali tells me, when I visit the Khawaja Sira Society in Lahore, a community-building organization where she works as a coordinator.
Founded in 2012, the KSS and its work represent a microcosm of both the attitudinal changes in Pakistani society toward the transgender community and the challenges that continue to pothole the path ahead.
The organization provides a safe space for the transgender community, and offers counseling sessions, HIV/AIDS testing and prevention methods, educational workshops on sexual health and human rights, advocacy and outreach programs. Up a flight of stairs and past a balcony overlooking a dusty commercial road, a door on the left opens into the office lounge, a cozy space with a large dining table and chairs, mirrors lining brightly painted orange walls, and rows of cushions on either side of the room where visitors can relax or nap. Near the entrance, a pink poster taped above the switchboard declares “Proud to Be a Transgender.” But demonstrating that pride isn’t easy. A tall, heavyset person with a thick mustache who touches my head maternally while passing by turns out to be a member of the transgender community who, Ali tells me, hasn’t come out publicly yet, and so maintains that appearance.
Some, like the aptly named Lucky, may appear more fortunate than others — but theirs too is a story of struggle. Slim and petite, with her hair pulled back in a short ponytail, Lucky, a KSS outreach worker, knew she was different by the time she was 5. Her parents, who worked at a Lahore college, knew soon enough too, but ignored the subject. When she turned 13, Lucky left home after a fight with her family. She lived on the streets, barely surviving off money earned from sex work and alms. But a few years later, after her mother took ill, her parents asked her to move in with them again. A passionate singer and occasional actress, Lucky acted in Teesri Dhun: The Third Tune, a 2016 theater production on the lives of Pakistan’s transgender community that was also performed at American graduate schools, including Yale and the University of Texas at Austin. “My mother and my father came to watch my performance along with my boyfriend,” Lucky says. “It was such a perfect moment for me.”
Others struggle to get their loved ones to acknowledge them in public. Nirmal, another outreach worker, says her boyfriend of six years refuses to be seen with her in public. “He says, ‘What if my friends make fun of me?’”
Transgender activists continue to face taunts from the police — and ordinary people, at times — while on outreach programs, accused of promoting sex when they hand out condoms. And the recent policy changes introduced to help the community represent “only a drop in the ocean,” says Neeli Rana, a veteran transgender activist. Although embittered by years of promises to the community that she says have mostly proved hollow, Rana continues to fight “for our next generations” and their right to work wherever they wish to, without any backlash.
Others are seeing signs of compassion, starting with their families. Ashi, another prominent transgender activist, fled her home at the age of 13 to escape a physically abusive father who wouldn’t accept her. Years later, when her father had been bedridden for two years, Ashi returned home — the only one of her siblings to do so — and she now looks after her 86-year-old mother.
On his deathbed, Ashi’s father wept and begged for her forgiveness. “I cried and told him I’d forgiven him a long time ago, and that he was my parent and that it was my duty to care for him,” she recalls. That sense of duty, felt for its transgender community, is something Pakistan may be waking up to.