On November 13, 2016, a video went viral on social media, which showed a transgender woman pinned down and being viciously flogged by a gang of men in Pakistan as ‘punishment for her bad habits’.
The video itself is not suitable for the faint-hearted.
Shown in the footage, the victim is being held face down on a bed, while a man lashes her body with a leather belt after the attackers had barged into a home in the city of Sialkot. While this man continued the flogging, the other man placed his foot on the victim’s neck and twisted her arms as she screamed in pain. In the brutal act shown in the nearly 2-minute clip, the victim’s clothing was pulled down from her waist before the whipping continued. Even though others tried to intervene to stop the beating, the attack carried on.
According to different news sources, Julie, who was present at the site of the incident, has claimed that,
“They beat us all night and what they did to us is so awful. It was so awful that if it ever happened to one of your children, it would break you… All night, they made us drink urine and spat on us and kept beating our heads with their shoes.”
Brutality and humiliation towards members of the transgender community is something every citizen of Pakistan is aware of, or has taken part in – directly or indirectly, in some form or the other.
The terms khusra/i, hijra, khwaja sira, or in other words transgender, refer to a group of people who are perhaps the most marginalised and at-risk minority communities in Pakistan with the least amount of rights and little or no respect in their homes or the society. In simple terms, it means being born not knowing which gender the person belongs to. Generally, the term khusra/i is used as a medium to insult other people, because apparently being a transgender is THAT bad, as is being a woman in this country. Even children are told not to interact with or make eye contact with a visibly transgender person on the street.
Historically speaking, the transgender community had proper identity, culture, tradition and rituals. For instance, they have their own language that stretches from Nepal to Iran and their culture has been sustained for centuries. Even during the Mughal era, the transgender community did not have to face societal stigma. They were treated with respect, had equal opportunities when it came to matters of income and had special roles in royal courts. However, the modern society has marginalised and put their existence in danger to the point that they face discrimination in every sphere of the society.
In fact, not only did they have special ritualistic roles at Sufi shrines, but the first chaddar (holy cloth) placed on Bari Imam’s (a saint who spread Islam in this part of the world) grave was also by a transgender.
Transgender people have also remained caretakers of the Kaa’ba.
The discrimination, however, now prevents them from visiting shrines, hence they have had to abandon places of worship. Even entering a mosque poses a real threat to the lives of transgender people.
As a result of the typically conservative perception, transgender people are not considered to be part of the general community and the subject itself prevents discussion of their rights. They face rejections very often in almost all parts of Pakistan. Despite the generally negative understanding and perception of transgender people, the Pakistani public was surprised, taken aback and disgusted to see their humiliation play out in front of their eyes in the form of a video clip. The heartless beating and inhumane way of speaking to the transgender women really got everyone thinking, “Is this real? Are they actually treated this way?”
Well, the answer is yes.
Sadly, however, this isn’t the only case that highlights discrimination against the transgender community. Statistically, nearly 50 transgender people have been killed in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province over the past two years.
In May, a popular transgender activist died after being shot in Peshawar. Lady Reading Hospital staff was accused of failing to give the woman, Alisha, any treatment. The extent of discrimination and harassment is not limited to the social sphere. Even though in 2012 transgender people were granted the right to register themselves under the ‘third gender’ category on the National Identity Card form, they are still required to submit a medical certificate proving their gender. As if being abandoned by their family, relatives, friends and the society wasn’t enough, they also face difficulties in exercising the rights given to them under the law.
More recently, in June, the Tanzeem Ittehad-i-Ummat Pakistan, declared a fatwa (religious decree) that deemed marriages of transgender people legal as per Sharia law. The fatwa says,
“ ‘Visible signs of being a male’ may marry a woman or a transgender with ‘visible signs of being a female’ and vice versa.”
Though this stance raises many different questions about reinforcing current gender roles and the nuclear family structure, perhaps a discussion on that needs to happen at another time.
According to the decree, robbing transgender people of their share in inheritance is unlawful and parents who deprive their transgender sons/daughters of inheritance are committing a sin. Hence, the clerics have urged the government to take action against such parents. Additionally, the fatwa concluded with a word on last rites, proclaiming that all funeral rituals for a transgender person will be the same as for any other Muslim person.
No concrete legislation has been formed on this front as yet.
In 2012, the former Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, with a three-member bench of the Supreme Court ruled that the transgender community was entitled to rights guaranteed in the Constitution of Pakistan as other citizens, including having the right of inheritance after the death of parents, job opportunities, free healthcare and education. Though this was a brave step to take, the mentioned rights have only been guaranteed on paper and the transgender community still believes that these rights have not been implemented in practice. Provincial welfare departments have yet to implement the decision. There is a grave lack of educational and professional opportunities available for members of the transgender community. A communal understanding has been formed amongst the public that they are not capable of engaging in any kind of work other than the entertainment industry (namely singing, dancing, prostituting). Having been disowned by their families, they are not able to attain even the most basic standard of education since the idea of a transgender child being brought up in a regular household and studying in a mainstream academic institution is not a justifiable reality. Consequently, they are left with no choice but to live in secluded communities with their own kind, often in extreme poverty.
The reason why so many members of the transgender community work as sex workers is an immediate result of societal shortcomings. Perhaps, if employment opportunities weren’t closed to them, they wouldn’t have to sell their bodies. If there was space for them in the mainstream society, they wouldn’t be forced to live so rigidly and in fear.
Besides the government, several non-governmental bodies are also taking an active interest in improving the quality of life for the transgender community, such as the transgender rights group Trans Action Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It called on the government and police to protect their communities following the recent violation and attack.
In the recent case, an FIR has been lodged against the perpetrators and 13 people have been nominated in it. Out of those 13, five have been arrested, including Jajja Butt, the main perpetrator, while five are being questioned.
Although, there have been initiatives taken by the Pakistani government to safeguard transgender rights in Pakistan, one can only hope that a sincere change occurs in the negative perception of transgender people. It’s about time that people start respecting and treating each other each like they want to be treated themselves.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any organization with which she might be associated.