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Despite Gains, Pakistan's Transgender Community Under Attack

Members of Pakistan's transgender community face widespread discrimination.
Members of Pakistan's transgender community face widespread discrimination.
Zeba, a transgender rights activist in Pakistan who was born with both male and female sex organs, was resting at home in the Imamia Colony neighborhood of Peshawar when the front door was suddenly kicked open.

Local police, together with angry residents of the area, stormed inside -- smashing Zeba's belongings and shouting threats.

Forced outside into the street on that October 20 evening, Zeba saw that the same thing was happening to scores of others from Pakistan's transgender minority who have moved to the neighborhood during the last 25 years.

"Nobody listens to our outcry. Now look at how these locals, along with police, have attacked our homes. They destroyed our household items and beat us badly. Some of our friends are now in the hospital. They injured us badly," Zeba said.

Members of the long-oppressed community had hoped their plight would improve after the Supreme Court ordered national identity cards to include a third gender category in 2009.

'Third-Gender' Citizens

Official status for "third-gender" citizens -- often loosely referred to as eunuchs or hijras, but which include hermaphrodites, transsexuals, eunuchs, and transvestites -- technically guarantees them the same basic civil rights of any other Pakistani citizen.

But it took another two years before Pakistani election officials were ordered to register third-gender voters -- a development that was hailed when transgender candidates and voters participated in general elections this May.

Despite the advancements, however, the plight of Pakistan's third-gender community is difficult. Discrimination limits employment opportunities, and the transgender minority regularly faces intimidation, humiliation, and abuse.

Most describe themselves as professional wedding dancers.

Zeba, for example, prefers to be referred to as a "Khwaja Saraa" -- the term used to identify the transgender courtesans who danced in the courts of the Mughul emperors during the 17th and 18th centuries.

But rights activists say their main source of income is from begging or prostitution.

Many also become the victims of extortion, sexual violence, and criminal gangs. That has driven them together into unofficial settlements such as Peshawar's Imamia Colony neighborhood.

But that has caused tensions with Sunni and Shi'a Muslims and Pakistani Christians who also live in the neighborhood.

Those groups -- often at odds elsewhere in Pakistan -- have united in Imamia Colony behind the goal of trying to force out members of the transgender community.

Many members of the transgender community earn a living as wedding dancers.
Many members of the transgender community earn a living as wedding dancers.
Leading the campaign is Abdul Rehman, a 48-year-old Sunni Muslim who is trying to put pressure on the landlords of Imamia Colony to evict any transgender residents.

Rehman told RFE/RL he sees his efforts as a "cleansing campaign."

"All of them have made their homes in the area into brothels. Mostly, it is criminals who are visiting them. I witnessed an incident one night in which a drunk person was using abusive language. When a local resident tried to stop them, this drunk man shot him dead," Rehman said.

"The case was registered in the local police station. I am also worried about the influence of these hijra on my own young children and other kids who live in this area. Those kids are naive and young and they could be easily trapped into homosexuality."

Shamaa, a Khwaja Saraa who moved to the neighborhood after being rejected by family at the age of 15, said Rehman's way of thinking about Pakistan's transgender minority is typical.

"What can I say? The way people think about us and why they insult us depends upon everybody's personal way of thinking and their own level of consciousness," Shamaa said. "We were not born from the trees. We are human beings just as they are. We are also the children of Pashtuns and we are human."


Most members of Peshawar's transgender community insist that they are good, practicing Muslims.

But Javed Nasim -- a provincial lawmaker in Peshawar and a member of the ruling Tehrik-i-Insaf political party -- disagrees. Nasim equates their lifestyle with homosexuality and says the very idea of a "third gender" is un-Islamic.

"If I, Javed Nasim, change my gender I will be cursed by Allah. And if there is anybody who looks at my face, they will be committing a sin. Allah says that if you are born as a man or as a woman, you have to come to him after death the same way," Nasim said.

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I.A. Rehman, the director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said that the situation for Pakistan's transgender minority has been deteriorating in northwestern Pakistan.

"Generally in Pakistan, Khwaja Saraa are not under threat. But they are in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province because [of the new coalition in power there and their concept of] a 'new Islam' under way," Rehman said.

"Generally, human rights groups in Pakistan have done great advocacy on the issue of [third-gender] identity cards. For them, they have conducted and organized a lot of seminars and workshops. But to be honest, when people are asking about gay rights in Pakistan, it must be said that even the rights of nongays are not protected. So how can gay rights be protected."

Members of Peshawar's transgender community are trying to stand up for their own rights.

They have taken to the streets during the past week to protest the targeted violence against them.

But those demonstrations have deteriorated into street brawls with local police using truncheons to beat the protesters and break up their rallies.

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