Accept, do not separate

  • Why not an inclusive policy for transgenders?

After years of persecution, ridicule and an identity crisis, transgenders in Pakistan now seem to be making a mark in the society. While one recently made history and gained an overnight global fame by becoming the first transgender newscaster in the country, others will soon have access to a school which would cater to the community. Giving them ‘exclusive’ rights, however, by means of creating separate institutions may not be the kind of acceptance third genders seek in Pakistan.

Transgenders or Hijras as known locally, have since long been mocked at, harassed, or termed as a source of embarrassment in the country. They would be shunned by their parents and forced to escape a ‘normal’ society and live in seclusion with others like themselves, burdened with a physical deformity, not self created but destined by fate. They usually are unable to seek education, at least not higher and employment. Thus, the most common image of a transgender which comes to one’s mind in Pakistan is that of an effeminate man, heavily made up and gaudily dressed, coaxing commuters to give alms during the brief interval between red and green traffic lights. The other role normally associated to them is of cheap entertainment at weddings and other festive occasions, where they dance to the tune of popular beats. A worse occupation for them is that of prostitution, which they succumb to after accepting the harsh reality that it may be the only source for them to earn a means of living.

It is for this latter role that they have been subjected to discrimination, dishonour and even physical torture, sometimes leading to death. Extremists often associate all transgenders with homosexuality and prostitution – both morally unacceptable in the Pakistani society. In the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province alone, 55 transgender people have been killed in recent years and hundreds more assaulted, according to Farzana Jan, the president of Trans Action Alliance, a local rights group. In 2016, a 23-year-old activist named Alisha was shot seven times and left to bleed to death in a Peshawar hospital as the staff argued over whether they should take Alisha to the men’s ward or women’s ward. During this time, men asked for her friend’s phone number to invite her to a dance party.

When we as feminists ask for equality, we demand that there should be no discrimination among men and women. Women are capable of performing tasks and feats a well as men

With members from both transgenders and civil rights community protesting against such attitudes, the situation has slowly begun to improve in Pakistan. In 2009, the Supreme Court in a landmark ruling stated that as citizens transgenders were entitled to the equal benefits and protection of the law and called upon the government to take steps to protect them from discrimination and harassment. Last year the Lahore High Court ordered the government to include transgender people in the national census while a Senate committee approved the Transgender Person (Protection of Rights) Bill 2017, which would give transgender people full legal protection. It also provides for a clear definition of transgender and provides them relief in case of need of medical and other facilities.

In yet another step, a school for the education and vocational training of Pakistan’s transgender community is set to open this month in Lahore. The school will offer academic education from the primary level to matriculation and then leading up to college. It will also impart technical education, such as fashion designing, beautician and hair styling courses, graphic designing, computer and mobile repairing, among others. Two more such schools are to be established in Islamabad and Karachi. While the step is commendable, it overlooks a flaw which may result in separatist or worse, discriminatory attitudes towards the third gender.

When we say that we are opening a separate school for transgenders, we are separating them from ourselves. Even if the cause is noble, we are sending out a message that we need to create a separate space for transgenders. If more such schools open, inclusive schools for others may reject admission to a third gender child, claiming that there are separate schools available for them. If we don’t accept them as a part of our society in childhood, how will we accept them as adults in professional fields? An extremist mind may say: Make separate hospitals, restaurants, work places etc for transgenders. One day, some one might say that we accept them as members of society and acknowledge their rights, as long as they don’t mingle with us and go their own separate ways.

What should be done, instead, is to encourage their inclusion in all setups. Educational institutions should be instructed to accommodate transgenders along with boys and girls, and any harassment against them should be discouraged. Hospitals should ensure that they receive medical treatment and not suffer a fate like Alisha. Workplaces should be encouraged to accept a third gender candidate if eligible for a certain position, just like Marvia Malik was able to first walk on the ramp as a model and later join a news channel as an anchor.

When we as feminists ask for equality, we demand that there should be no discrimination among men and women. Women are capable of performing tasks and feats a well as men. In Pakistan, women are now riding bikes, trucks and planes. We urge men not to look upon them as the fairer sex, but as an equal member of the society and as a human being. Then why do the men and women look at the third sex as different?

In February this year, a group of 40 transgender people joined Pakistan’s biggest Boy Scouts group based in Karachi. Atif Amin Hussain, the commissioner of the IPC Sindh Boys Scouts, had said that the association was ‘open to all, without distinction of origin, race or creed’. This is the attitude we should adopt towards men, women and transgenders alike. Member of the third sex is a person whose soul is in conflict with its body. They are tormented by a lack of definition, which no language offers: a transgender is neither a he nor a she. We should accept God’s will, just as they do. If we free them from a separatist attitude, they may find some solace.