For many observers, Pakistan’s May 2013 electoral campaigns symbolized a transition to a functioning democracy and the embrace of diversity in a country known for violence and discrimination against both ethnic and religious minorities. On the May 11, the media heralded the first peaceful, civilian transfer of power in Pakistani history. Not only were there 70 seats reserved for women and minority groups in the National Assembly, but for the first time in the country’s history, several transgender women ran for public office. At the time, the international media was flooded with articles and reports about the massive leaps forward being made by the transgender community and Pakistani society as a whole. However, the struggle of these noteworthy activists who succeeded in catapulting themselves into the public spotlight is going to continue long after the fanfare of the elections has died down and the international journalists have gone home.
Traditionally, hijras (the blanket word used in Urdu to denote eunuchs, transvestites, and transgender people) are treated as outcasts in Pakistani society. They are ostracized by their families, attacked in the streets, forced into prostitution, and usually turn to begging or performing as their only means of survival. Over the last several years, however, the situation appears to have improved. In 2011 the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that hijras can obtain their own identity cards that recognize their gender as "third sex," giving their status a new legitimacy and allowing them to officially identify as something other than just male. The legislation also called for an end to the harassment of hijras by both civilians and the police, and stated that hijras are now to be treated as ordinary citizens. New laws also gave transgender people the right to equal employment and to inherit their parent’s property. Winning the right to run in the 2013 elections was another victory to add to the list, and Bindia Rana, one of at least six transgender candidates that ran in this year’s elections, paved the way for this victory.
A former dancer turned social worker, Rana knew that her victory was improbable. But although she didn’t win a seat, her presence in the public eye marks a new era for the transgendered community in Pakistan, and can thus be considered a victory in its own right. After deciding to run for office, Rana lodged a case in the Supreme Court to get her nomination papers accepted after doubts were cast on her eligibility due to her gender. The ruling in her favor opened the door for other members of the transgender community to run for office in these and future elections. The new ruling also turned the transgender community into an important political player in Pakistan, as candidates from all parties began to vie for votes. "Before no one cared about us. There was no benefit for politicians in paying us any attention. But now they are calling me, asking what we want and how they can help," said a transgendered woman who runs a non-governmental organisation for transgender people in Lahore.
The campaign trails, however, have been far from smooth sailing. More than 100 people were killed in pre-election violence, and bombings became so commonplace that offering aid to bomb victims became a verified campaign technique. Rana herself received countless death threats, most of which came from anonymous telephone calls. Naina Lal, another popular transgender candidate who ran for office this year at only 28 years of age, claims that although people in Pakistan are far more accepting than in years past, there is still a long way to go. Despite the change in laws, harassment by the country’s police forces is commonplace. Additionally, hijras are prohibited from getting married, and although legal, obtaining identification can be an obstacle fraught with ridicule and discriminatory practices. HIV/AIDS is also a problem that disproportionately affects the hijra community, which many politicians are hesitant to address. According to a report published in 2012, the social exclusion faced by Pakistani hijras is forcing them into situations in which they put their health and their lives at risk. Community activists such as Bindia Rana and Naina Lal will have their work cut out for them as they continue to battle discrimination and social exclusion at all levels of Pakistani society throughout the years to come.
Check out this interview with a member of Pakistan's Hijra Community:
For more on the rights of transgender communities in Pakistan, follow me @CrisLeeMaza