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Pakistan Passes Widespread Reforms To Grant Transgender Rights

“We hope now with this bill, our society will open doors for us. We could get better opportunities to explore our lives. We are politicians, we are engineers. We can be everything anyone else can be.”

Transgender rights activists gather in front of a governmental building in Pakistan. Photo by Mehlab Jameel, used with permission.


The historic human rights victory could inspire other countries in the region to re-evaluate their policies on transgender rights.

Pakistan’s parliament recently passed a landmark bill that may expand fundamental rights for the country’s transgender community.

The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act — which passed on May 8, 2018, and is headed to Pakistan’s president for approval — will allow transgender people to be officially recognized as their preferred gender for the first time. Transgender Pakistanis will be able to have their gender identity recognized on official documents, including national IDs, passports, and driver licenses.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]We can be everything anyone else can be.[/quote]

The bill prohibits also any public discrimination against LGBTQ people including in schools, at work, on public modes of transit, and while receiving medical care. They can vote and run for office. The bill also lays out rights to inheritance for transgender people in accordance with their chosen gender. And it obligates the government to establish “protection centers and safe houses” — along with separate prisons, jails, or places of confinement.

“This bill is huge,” says Kami Sid, Pakistan’s first transgender model, who was in the Netherlands when GOOD spoke with her by phone. The Karachi-based model made her fashion shoot debut in 2016 and was also featured in the documentary “How Gay is Pakistan.”

“We hope now with this bill, our society will open doors for us. We could get better opportunities to explore our lives,” she says. “We are politicians, we are engineers, we can be everything anyone else can be.”

Mehlab Jameel, a transgender activist in Lahore, echoes the excitement from the transgender community. “I am still in a state of disbelief,” she says by phone. “I did not expect something like this — in a very progressive form — [would] be passed in Pakistan. It was a big struggle. We are all really happy and celebrating.”

A meeting between Pakistani activists and governmental officials. Photo by Mehlab Jameel, used with permission.

The beginnings of a movement

The first ray of light for LGBTQ people in Pakistan came with the historic 2009 decision by the Supreme Court of Pakistan that ruled in favor of civil rights for transgender citizens. Further court rulings upheld and increased these rights. Yet the 2009 ruling didn’t go far enough, Jameel says. “There were still a lot of gaps and issues within the policy because there was actually no law to back it,” she says.

In 2017, the first version of the Transgender Act was drafted in the parliament, but it lacked input from the “grassroots” community, Jameel says. Many people in Pakistan’s transgender community are poor and uneducated, and their problems and rights are much more complicated than the more “elite” members who were involved with creating the bill, Jameel says. A group of activists made sure that the voice of the wider community was taken into account.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]In this country, we have never gotten a platform.[/quote]

“I remember it was Ramadhan,” Jameel says, “we were meeting with the community people in Lahore and Karachi and other cities. We were fasting, and it was hot. It was a lot of hard work, and senators of different political parties were involved to help.”

Over the course of a year, Jameel says that the LGBTQ activists worked “with legal policy experts, council for Islamic ideology, lawyers, [and] legislators to gain the technical expertise that we did not have.” And they kept their efforts quiet so that they could avoid “unwanted controversies.”

With the combined effort of the trans communities throughout the country, the bill finally passed in 2018.

“In this country, we have never gotten a platform, the opportunity to expand our horizons, and the possibility to live beyond this diminished life,” Sid says.

Photo by Mehlab Jameel, used with permission.

Life in the shadows

The struggle for LGBTQ rights in Pakistan has been long, tedious, and often bloody. “There has been an entire movement behind this,” says transgender actor Neeli Rana.

Transgender people in South Asia have been marginalized for centuries.

For some transgender people in the subcontinent — the region between India and Pakistan — sex work was one of the only ways to make money while others found work dancing or performing at music ceremonies at weddings and Sufi shrines.

“Sex has been our way of life,” says Ruby, 36, a transgender woman in Karachi who goes by a single name. She has spent her life begging at street signals and often doing sex work. “Sex bought us bread. Sex brought us the roof,” she told GOOD by phone. “If [we] refused to do the thing society allowed us, we would die hungry on the streets, without shelter.”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Sex bought us bread. Sex brought us the roof.[/quote]

Transgender Pakistanis were often beaten and raped, and the police would often refuse to take their cases. There have been a significant number of attacks against the trans community in Pakistan, but it is difficult to report the frequency of the violence because it is rarely documented by authorities or the media. Since 2015, at least 55 transgender Pakistanis have been killed in one province alone.

In 2016, a 23-year-old transgender activist by the standalone name Alisha died at a hospital after being shot. When her friends took her to the hospital, doctors were uncooperative; the staff was not sure whether to place her in the ward for male patients or female patients. Trans activist Farzana Jan, who was friends with Alisha, recalled the scene: “We were in the emergency ward and instead of treating the patient, they mocked us.”

Photo by Mehlab Jameel, used with permission.

A new hope

The 2018 bill is the real first step toward progress, Jameel says. “It is a legal base for us to be able to do any kind of advocacy or policy level work. In that sense, this law is seriously unprecedented.”

Jameel says that the anti-discriminatory legislation will allow activists like her to have more freedom to work at the policy level and at a local level, where she can “actually make a difference to change lives.”

“We are hopeful, and we are happy,” she says.

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