50.50: Feature

Pakistan’s trans community is still living with the violence of empire

Despite laws protecting trans rights, people face stigma, poverty and murder, thanks in part to a damaging colonial past

Arya Karijo
30 March 2021, 3.13pm
Nayyab Ali, YouTube, fair use.

In theory, Pakistan has progressive laws that protect trans rights. Historical references to the gender-diverse community go back thousands of years in South Asia, and Pakistan is one of only 12 countries in the world that recognises transgender identity on national ID cards. 

But the community, known as the Khawaja Sira, was criminalised by the British Raj under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, and trans people in Pakistan still suffer from the attitudes it embedded.

In recent years, violence against trans people has been on the rise. Last November, Nayyab Ali, a prominent trans activist, was attacked in her Islamabad home by two men wielding knives. She was held hostage for three hours, during which time she was beaten and robbed.

“They think the only way to stop the voice of the transgender community is to stop the activists. Hence this increase in violence,” Ali told openDemocracy in a Zoom interview.

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Unlike other victims, Ali is an internationally recognised figure, having won awards for her work . She also ran for a seat in Pakistan’s parliamentary elections in 2018.

After the attack, 27 members of the European parliament wrote to the Pakistani government, demanding action against her attackers. As a result the police were forced to file a report on the incident: a rare occurrence, according to Ali.

“They are usually reluctant to file such reports. They will instead advise you to stop participating in activism,” she told openDemocracy

A colonial legacy

Different cultures across the world have taken different attitudes to gender diversity, at different points in history. The Khawaja Sira community – also known as the hijra – is a broad group that encompasses trans and intersex people, as well as eunuchs. These people have been a part of South Asian life for at least 2,000 years. 

The British Empire, however, brought with it a particularly narrow view of gender, which was used as part of a wider divide-and-rule strategy. In a 2014 essay for the Asian Studies Review, the historian Jessica Hinchy writes that British colonialists “sought to establish a new social order where the British man was the apex of masculinity”. 

Ethnic and religious groups in South Asia were ordered into a hierarchy according to the perceived masculinity of the men – from the so-called “martial races” of Sikhs, Pathans and Muslims, for instance, to “effeminate” Bengalis. “When the colonisers discovered a gender variant community of Hijras who violated this elaborate hierarchy,” writes Hinchy, “they sought to discipline and erase this group from society through the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871.” 

The Act was officially repealed in Pakistan in 1949, after independence. But it wasn’t until 2009, when the country’s supreme court ruled that provincial governments should protect the rights of the Khawaja Sira community, that real progress was made.

In 2012, transgender people were granted the same rights as their cis counterparts, including the right to vote and to inherit property. In 2016, Muslim clerics in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city issued a fatwa permitting transgender marriage. The clerics also declared: “making noises at transgender people, making fun of them, teasing them, or thinking of them as inferior is against sharia law.” 

In 2017, transgender people were included as a category in the national census, while the following year Pakistan’s parliament passed the Transgender Rights Protection Act. The new law, which Ali described as “an historical intervention”, includes a provision that allows people to self-declare their gender.

“Before this law, a lot of people like me were in ‘the closet’,” said Saro Imran, an Islamabad-based trans rights campaigner and a member of the Activists Alliance Foundation. The new law “gave a lot of people courage to come out as transgender and to own their identity,” she told openDemocracy.

Saro Imran at a protest
Saro Imran at a protest. | Image, Civicus, 2020.

Advances in trans rights have always faced resistance, however, partly due to the difference between the intentionally vague way the Khawaja Sira community has defined itself historically, and the specific meanings of terms such as ‘transgender’ and ‘intersex’.

The ambiguity on which Khawaja Sira activism rests – for instance, conflating traditional eunuchs with transgender people – has often been constructive, said Ali. But it now creates complications, according to the activist, often beginning with questions about genitalia.

“When your intimate partner [realises] ... that a trans person is not an intersex person, it leads to violence and abuse,” she said.  

Conflict also arises at women-only childbirth ceremonies, which historically allowed Khawaja Sira to participate. Differences in sexual characteristics between traditional eunuchs and transgender people have led to disputes at the modern version of the ceremonies. 

"This conflation once gave us benefit, but this now plays a role in socially excluding us,” said Imran.

Trans people in Pakistan are often disowned by their families and live together in communities, usually led by a guru. Exclusion from education means that 42% of the community is illiterate, and employment is heavily focused on three specific jobs. According to a 2016 survey, 51% of trans people’s overall income comes from dancing (including toli, ceremonial dances at weddings and births), 15% from sex work and 12% from begging. 

Sex work and begging have been outlawed in Pakistan, while dance rituals are seen by religious authorities as un-Islamic. “You can imagine how difficult it is to survive,” said Ali, adding that many people resort to underground sex work, and are targeted by the police.

Even the few transgender people with formal qualifications are exploited, she added. They are often used for show by local NGOs, she says, to project diversity to international donor agencies while in reality, they still face discrimination.

Violence and murder

Recent years have seen a spree of shootings of trans people, often during or after performances at weddings. Within less than a week last September, Gul Panra was shot by an unidentified gunman in the city of Peshawar and Saad Khan was killed by her brother in Swabi city. 

The situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, in the north-west of the country, is particularly dire. When a transgender woman called Nazo was hacked to death there in 2018, activists said she was the 62nd trans person murdered in the province since 2015. 

In 2016, Alisha, a 23 year-old trans rights activist in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was shot seven times by a gang which extorts money from trans people, according to local reports. She was rushed to hospital in the city of Peshawar, but the staff argued over whether to take her to the men's or women's ward. Alisha bled to death, while being taunted by a group of men, according to friends who spoke to the LA Times.

This problem is common, said Ali. “If you are a trans woman and you have a penis, you can’t go to the female doctor. If you go to a male doctor, they will say you are not a real transgender person.” This can cause particular problems at sexual health clinics, which puts sex workers at greater risk.

Although the 2018 Transgender Rights Protection Act is a federal law, large areas of policy – including health, education, prisons and family law – are administered by provincial authorities, meaning that activists have had to campaign for its implementation in each individual province. 

“There is a law on the national level, but the mindset of society is the same,” said Imran, whose organisation campaigned on behalf of 73 transgender people who suffered violent deaths between 2015 and 2018. Little has changed on the ground since the new law was passed, she said.

Ali called on people in other parts of the world to support Pakistan’s trans community in their struggle for rights. International solidarity, she said, “can pressure the Pakistani government to give [us] protection”. At times, said Ali, that pressure is what makes the difference between someone staying alive or ending up dead. 

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