In Pakistan, a group of local activists are seeking to build a transgender-friendly mosque on the outskirts of Islamabad, the country’s capital.
In an interview with Pakistan’s Express Tribune, Naseem Kashish, the lead activist and founder of the Shemale Association for Fundamental Rights (SAFFAR) said that the mosque would be a safe space for transgender people to pray and “to convey a message to our society that people who are transgender are also Muslim, they too have a right to offer prayers in a mosque, to recite or teach the Holy Quran, and to preach Islam.”
While the mosque will serve as an important development for a marginalized community, more needs to be done by both civil society and the government to support transgender Pakistanis.
Pakistan has a complex history when it comes to transgender issues. In both India and Pakistan, transgender individuals are often referred to as hijras, a word derived from the Arabic root h-j-r, which denotes movement from one space to another. The word is typically used to refer to trans-women.
Another name, which the community has taken on for itself in both India and Pakistan, is khwaja sera, which means “guards of the harem,” a reference to the community’s historical role during the Moghul Empire.
As one of the most oppressed communities in the world, transgender individuals suffer from intense personal stigmatization and institutional discrimination in practically all aspects of their lives. The hijras of Pakistan and India have even developed their own language and forms of communication because of the discrimination they have faced. There has also been a fair share of disturbing transphobic violence in Pakistan.
One recent case is that of Alesha, a twenty-three-year old transgender female activist who was shot six to eight times by a local gang demanding money from a group of transgender individuals and threatening violence if they did not pay. The transgender individuals called Alesha for help, and when she arrived, the gang shot her. Alesha was then allegedly denied medical treatment in the hospital because doctors were debating whether to place her in a male or female ward. In another instance, a transgender woman was filmed being beaten by a gang. The video has since gone viral, and the suspects have been arrested.
These harrowing cases underscore the need to work toward recognizing the human dignity and preserving the fundamental rights of transgender communities in Pakistan. Throughout the years, there have been various social, political, and religious initiatives geared toward enfranchising, empowering, and protecting this community, on both an institutional and grassroots level.
In 2011, the Supreme Court of Pakistan officially recognized ‘transgender male’ and ‘transgender female’ as possible third sexual identities, and provided this option on national identity cards for those who identify as such; the decision also required, however, that candidates undergo medical examinations and receive a certification for their third identity. In its decision, the Court held that the fundamental civil rights of transgender individuals must be protected, that they must be offered equal opportunities for education, and that they qualified for affirmative action in employment.
In a separate ruling that same year, the Court granted the transgender community the right to vote, and ruled that its members could identify as a third-sex when registering to vote.
In June of this year, a body of Muslim clerics in Lahore declared marriage between transgender individuals permissible and fully affirmed their inheritance and burial rights. Despite the ambiguity of the fatwa’s terminology and the non-binding status of its stipulations, it had symbolic value in removing the stigma faced by a heavily marginalized population.
Earlier this month, Pakistan’s first transgender model made her debut in a fashion photoshoot. The event was meant to challenge transphobia and make trans identities more visible, according to Buzzfeed India. Most recently, a transgender rights advocacy group, called TransAction Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, filed a petition at the Peshawar High Court (PHC), calling for the postponement of Pakistan’s census count until the census form respects the Supreme Court’s 2011 decision to include the third gender option.
These efforts are a positive indication of progress, and must continue. The national government must make a firm commitment to furthering transgender rights and protections in the country. Parliament must pass substantive laws to further enfranchise and protect transgender communities; the courts must put these laws into action; and the police must enforce them.
Physicians must fulfill their obligation to provide medical care to all those who come to them. Religious figures must welcome transgender worshippers into their holy spaces and affirm that they too are deserving of Divine Love.
These collective gestures would send a message to the transgender community of Pakistan that they are indeed valued and cherished.