Pakistan's parliamentary elections will announce the arrival of a new voting bloc when the country's much-maligned transgender community heads to the polls for the first time.
Following their official "third gender" classification handed down by the Supreme Court in 2011, members of the community composed of transsexuals, transvestites, eunuchs, and hermaphrodites were granted the rights to vote and run for office.
In past polls, the minority group was barred from voting because its members were not willing to classify themselves as men or women to receive official documentation.
Pakistan's minority community of transgender men are known in the Urdu language as "hijras" and estimated to number around 500,000. Many Pakistanis refer to the members generally as "eunuchs."
The minority group's newfound political rights are just their latest groundbreaking achievement in Pakistan, a deeply conservative country where ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities have often been victims of violence and persecution. Yet those gains have done little to hide the difficult life facing the hijras, many of whom make a living through begging and prostitution.
Five hijra candidates will take part in the May 11 vote. The Election Commission of Pakistan has said that, unlike women and religious and ethnic minorities, the hijras will not have reserved seats in the provincial and national assemblies. Transgender candidates will have to contest general seats.
Fighting For Change
One of the hijras running is Sanam Faqeer, who is contesting Sukkar district for a seat in Sindh's provincial assembly. Faqeer is a human rights activist and a social worker who runs a shelter in a worn-out building for hijras over the age of 50.
Faqeer says hijra candidates have encountered numerous problems on the campaign trail. Faqeer says candidates lack resources, have little grassroots support, and must contend with widespread misinformation about the group in society.
"We don't even have vehicles, so we walk to people's homes by foot. Rival candidates have also spread rumors that I have been withdrawn from my candidacy," the activist says. "I pose a challenge to their chances because everyone in the district knows me. I have gone and handed out my pamphlets to every house. A lot of voters are saying they will vote for me."
Faqeer hopes the participation of hijras in the election will slowly change the discriminatory attitudes of the government, the police, and civil society toward the minority community. Faqeer is fighting to provide better services for Sukkar's most impoverished, many of whom lack access to education and health facilities.
"We will provide education and health facilities. I will also provide clean water facilities because our residents don't have access to it. We won't differentiate between Muslims, Christians, and Hindus or between the rich and poor," Faqeer says. "I belong to the poorest and most marginalized group in society, so I understand the basic needs and problems of the poor better than most."
On Fringes Of Traditional Society
In a blow to the community, more than 5,000 hijras in the restive northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province will not be able to cast their vote on May 11 due to the failure of the National Database Registration Authority to deliver computerized national identification cards to them.
That setback is nothing new to the community, which has long been relegated to the fringes of society. Hijras have been traditionally exposed to extortion, sexual violence, and police misconduct. They have also been the target of violence by religious extremist groups in the country.
Pakistani hijras describe themselves as "professional wedding dancers," but supporters say they are often forced to earn income through begging and prostitution.
Many transgender men were disowned by their families and adopted as young boys by so-called gurus, who act as leaders of the hijra community. The gurus give them shelter and food in return for their strict loyalty to the community.
Most hijras describe themselves as "professional wedding dancers," but supporters say they are many times forced to earn income through begging and prostitution. Often dressed in bright-colored saris -- a traditional dress worn by women in the subcontinent -- and wearing heavy makeup, they roam the streets asking people for money, making them targets for police harassment, abuse, and even rape.
They also often show up uninvited at major family gatherings such as weddings and birthdays, singing and dancing until they are paid or given gifts, after which they depart. Hijras are often seen as a sign of good luck in such ceremonies, while the curse of an unappeased hijra provokes fear.
Hope For The Future
Almas Bobi heads the All-Pakistan Shemale Association, a group representing and working for the protection of the rights of the country's transvestites, transsexuals, and eunuchs. Bobi says five hijra candidates are contesting the elections as independents.
Bobi, who has travelled to different parts of Pakistan to help transgender candidates campaign, is hopeful that at least one of the candidates will win a seat in the country's provincial or national assemblies. Even if they do not, Bobi says, the candidates can be proud of making history and paving the way to a better future for the next generation of hijras.
"If we don't win this time, we can do so next time. This is part of our struggle. We are progressing after years of stagnation and restriction because people didn't accept us," Bobi says. "It is our first time [taking part in elections] and the next generation of our community will benefit from our hard work. We pray and hope that it will get success in the future."
Bobi is not worried about the security of transgender candidates and says none has reported any harassment on the campaign trail.
The issues that the transgender candidates are most concerned with are no different from that of the average Pakistani. Many voters are deeply concerned about soaring violence, a stagnant economy, widespread energy shortages, and the grip of Pakistan's ruling parties on the political process.
Bobi says among the most pressing issues is rampant government corruption, adding that transgender candidates have made fighting corruption central to their campaigns.
"We go to the neighborhoods and streets and ask the people to vote for us as we are not corrupt. We will serve the people and won't steal from them," Bobi says. "We tell people that they have given a chance to both women and men, and now they should give us a chance too."