Lifting the veil – giving transgenders a chance one cafe at a time

Some of the trainees during the training session

“I usually dress up like a boy, it is only until I speak that people realise who I am. I have to do this for my family… my sisters need to get married and my brothers have a standing.

“They shouldn’t be insulted because of me,” says a trainee transgender at a popular ice cream parlour in a posh part of town.

The trainee, who spoke only after being assured that her identity wouldn’t be revealed, is part of a team of 15 transgender that will be starting their new jobs soon.

For many of the trainees this is their shot at an average life. For many of us, the idea of living a ‘normal’ life may seem boring, but for transgendered people ‘normal’ is perpetually out of reach. Or at least it was before initiatives such as the one that landed them into an ice cream parlour.

Soni*, who will be working at the place, spoke to Pakistan Today about the opportunity.

“We are ready to learn if people are ready to teach,” she says.

The trainee's hard at work
The trainee’s hard at work

Umer Hussain, the owner of Sweet Tooth, wanted to help transgender mainstream into society.  He hopes to help promote tolerance and has taken initiative to train the lot in the field of hospitality.

“It is high time that people start treating them as part of society – as normal people and not people that bring ‘dishonour’,” Umer says.

The idea to help the community find their place in society struck Umer during a discussion with his friends. He was introduced to Jannat Ali, a performer by profession who doubled as an MBA gold medallist and a transgender activist working for the Khawaja Sira Society (KSS).

“We are always looking for a good working environment for our community members,” Jannat told Pakistan Today.

“Shemales are usually bullied. They are thrown away by their parents when they are very young, or given to gurus. The only career choice most have is that of a dancer or a sex worker,” Umer adds.

Umer Hussain, the owner of Sweet Tooth and their trainer.
Umer Hussain, the owner of Sweet Tooth and their trainer

The collaboration aimed at helping transgenders that were disowned and/or ones that could not find a regular job. If someone was educated, they had a higher chance of being placed.

Designations ranged from floor staff to the management positions. Depending on their capabilities and drive they would be further checked. Eight members of the community had already signed joining contracts at the time of writing this article.

On the surface, little pockets of news about progress made on the transgender front makes it seem like Pakistan has come a long way. Not too long ago, they were allotted their own National Identity Cards (NICs). However, Jannat feels that it is all superficial.

“People are very intolerant, superficially they seem lenient towards us, but we are never given the needed support or acceptance.”

Harassment at workplace is a common concern for them, with little or no management support they end up getting used to being harassed, Sam, a trans working at the cafe states.

Sam is visibly hesitant when talking about her past.

“We meet all kinds of people in our life, some worse than others some much better. Getting used to the problems is part of life,” she says wistfully.

The ice cream parlour will offer complete support, however. Umer aims to ensure that strict policies are followed so that the people working with him can truly make a transition into normal life.

“Let people complain about my products but not about the type of people I hire! If it’s related to their work I would welcome criticism but not because of their gender,” he asserts.

Apart from the customer reaction and the problems that may follow as word gets out, the new recruits are happy to learn and looking forward to some level of acceptance.

The trainee's serving in the cafe
The trainee’s serving at the cafe

Sonu, who used to work at a boutique before coming to the parlour, cannot contain her excitement.

“This is a new field, and the best part is that we friends are together, there is a lot of emotional support and the staff here is getting used to us too,” she exclaims.

While progress is being made, there is a long way to go. Transgenders are a community that often live in hiding. They often remain stuck below the poverty line, and have to put up with immense discrimination.

And even though we have heard news of transgenders being hired at NCA and now here, it is important to note that these events are happening at the same time as the attack on a transgender activist in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

At the end of the day we must ask ourselves, is asking society to just let them live a ‘normal’ life too much to ask?


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