The Constitution of Pakistan gives every citizen equal rights but the country’s transgender community has faced harassment, rape, torture, death and even denial of basic rights and guarantees.
Though over time, legal steps have been taken to secure their basic rights, the implementation is often painfully slow. The Census of 2017 recorded a mere 10,418 transgender persons in Pakistan but it is estimated that the actual figure is much higher — the low figure was said to have been caused by an anomaly in how their identity cards were recorded.
Aziz Akhtar, an elderly man from the old city area of Lahore, said he had never heard of violence against transgender persons in the earlier days. In his house, transgender persons worked as cooks and nannies, being trusted more than other domestic help and treated as part of the family. “We don’t know what went wrong in our society but after a while they were pushed away into the corner and stigmatised.”
Deprived of education, employment opportunities and basic necessities of life for ages, transpersons are often found in the dark alleys of towns and villages looking for whatever work they can find, such as begging, prostitution or dancing at events. Most transgender persons are disowned by their families and end up living with their Gurus (group leaders) as Chelas (subjects).
According to a research conducted by Saad Ali Khan on “Guru-chela Relationship in Khwajasira Culture of Pakistan: Uncovering the Dynamics of Power and Hegemony Within,” Gurus also exploit their subjects and end up binding them to a vicious cycle of bonded labour.
There has been a spate of targeted attacks against transgender persons across the country this year, with some ending in fatalities. It is believed that the attacks increased due to the coronavirus-related lockdowns as people’s mental and physical frustration levels spiked.
However, a transgender person, on the condition of anonymity, said, “These attacks have nothing to do with corona. This has been happening for ages — the only difference is now they are being reported.” She blamed the “internal politics of the guru-chela system” as being responsible for their deaths, alleging inside police involvement in some cases as well.
Bindiya Rana of Gender Initiative Alliance believes that these attacks take place due to lack of speedy justice, and also termed a lack of public sensitisation as the cause. “Whenever a general incident of violence takes place the public always stands against injustice but when the transgender community suffers, no one is there to clean our wounds,” complained Bindiya, adding that it would be premature to blame Gurus for orchestrating the attacks without any evidence.
Forum for Dignity Initiatives (FDI) Executive Director Uzma Yaqoob said most of the recent cases of violence against transgender persons are “due to intra-community fights and conflicts related to financial benefits.” She added, “When transgender persons get killed, either their family or the Guru start reconciling with the suspects to resolve the issue, which results in people going unpunished.”
Another issue hindering investigations is the lack of sensitisation of police and the greater judicial system to the plight of the community. Qamar Naseem of Blue Veins KPK said, “Basically, many attacks go unreported because the transgender community believes that they will not get justice. We have been working in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on training the police about the community’s issues” and hopefully results will start coming in soon.