Pakistan is on the brink of another gender revolution – this time it’s political
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Pakistan is on the brink of another gender revolution – this time it’s political

A GENDER revolution is underway in the unlikeliest of places – Pakistan.

As Pakistanis headed to the polls on Wednesday to choose their next Prime Minister, 13 transgender persons have stepped forward to stand as candidates and contest for seats.

It has been energising and enervating to witness an extremely marginalised community be able to participate in politics and seek a seat to represent people’s needs in the legislative arm of the government. In fact, Nadeem Kashish, a 35-year-old trans-woman is running against ex-cricket legend Imran Khan and ex-Prime Minister Shahid Abbasi in the bid for the Islamabad seat in the national assembly.

How did Pakistan get to this point? In 2009, a Supreme Court ruling stated that there would be a third sex option in the national identity card registration system, and that transgender persons could obtain national identity cards with this option.

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Since then, the courts have been ruling in greater recognition and in protection of transgender rights with regards to the right to vote, right to inheritance and to own assets, and a right to be counted as a separate category in the population census.

In June 2017, Farzana Riaz, became the first transgender person to be issued a passport with the third sex – X – as the gender marker.

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Pakistani transgender Farzana Riaz displays her newly-obtained passport in Peshawar on June 28, 2017. Source: Abdul Majeed/AFP

On May 9 this year, Pakistan’s parliament passed the landmark Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, recognising a citizen’s right to self-identify as male, female or a blend of both genders. Moreover, this act also enables citizens to have this identity registered on all official documents, including passports, national identity cards, drivers’ licences and educational certificates.

The Act defines that citizens have a right to a gender identity of their choosing –gender being “a person’s innermost and individual sense of self as male, female or a blend of both, or neither; that can correspond or not to the sex assigned at birth,” and that citizens have the right to express their gender identity.

Undoubtedly, in the Asia-Pacific region which struggles with sexuality and sexual rights, this is truly a milestone, especially in a country often labelled as being conservative.

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Historically, traditions and customs have recognised the third gender.

In Pakistan, where transgender people are called hijra, they are often invited to sing and dance and shower newly-married couples with blessings – akin to other South Asian countries. Interestingly enough, perspectives and regulations that tightly defined, regulated and controlled sexuality, were only brought in with British colonial rule.

Transgender persons were identified as a threat to public morality, and this was codified in the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 which affected South Asia.

Post-independence, these perspectives and regulations are used to limit the opportunities for transgender persons to those traditional roles and marginalise the community both economically and socially.

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Pakistani transgender independent candidate Nadeem Kashish (R) addresses a press conference in Islamabad. July 5, 2018. Source: Aamir Qureshi/AFP

The Act is particularly historic as it does away with convoluted processes and approvals seen in other countries that seem to work to restrict gender and sexual expression.

In most countries, sex is assigned at birth, usually by a physician or a midwife who delivers the baby. More often than not, sex reassignment is an arduous journey and in some Islamic countries there needs to be approval from religious authorities on the legitimacy of the claim to reassign one’s sex.

In some countries, one has to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria and undergo a waiting period, before being reassigned. Hence the recognition of the right to self-identify is a huge step.

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It is a hugely significant step that countries need to take in order to create more inclusive societies.

The transgender community has been long discriminated against: in education, in employment, in housing, in inheritance. They also experience high levels of violence, which goes unrecognised and unaddressed. And transgender persons often have no recourse to justice when their rights are violated. This law fixes that by helping them access opportunities and claim their rights.

However, while progressives hail these moves, Pakistan also continues to be home to a good number of conservatives whose views can make life difficult for the transgender community.

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Pakistani transgender activists take part in a demonstration in Karachi on November 20, 2017. The event was held to mark World Transgender Day. Source: Asif Hassan/AFP

Transgender persons are typically disowned by their families, and thrown out of the family homes. Many end up as beggars or sex workers, as opportunities are severely limited. Media reports quote that 58 trans persons were murdered in the past three years in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa district alone, including prominent trans-activists.

Even among the 13 transgender persons running for office, a number have dropped out due to public harassment and financial difficulties. These stories demonstrate the barriers that still need to be dismantled for the transgender community to fully participate and belong in society.

There is still much work that needs to be continued to create awareness and acceptance as well as to build capacities both of the transgender community and stakeholders such as policy-makers and programme implementers. But bringing the periphery to the centre should be a focus of all governments touting the Sustainable Development Goals, and its vow to leave no one behind. This includes the trans community. And if Pakistan can do it – why not the rest of us?

Sivananthi Thanenthiran is the Executive Director of the Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW). She co-authored “Reclaiming & Redefining Rights: The Status of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Asia and the Pacific” in 2009 and 2013. She has presented papers on sexual and reproductive health and rights at the UN in Bangkok and New York.