Transgender Pakistanis Take Their Rights to Nation’s Islamic Courts

Members of the Pakistani transgender community stage a protest against their persecution in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore on March 12.
K.M. Chaudary/AP

A Pakistani transgender activist brought the rights of fellow transgender people in the country to a court in Lahore on Wednesday seeking police enforcement of laws against beating and torturing transgender people, a regular occurrence in the Islamic country.

Pakistan’s constitution establishes the country as explicitly Islamic; its preamble begins with the words “in the name of Allah, the most Beneficient, the most Merciful.” Congress cannot enact laws that run afoul of Sharia, the Islamic legal code.

Pakistan nonetheless passed laws protecting transgender people from harm, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, in May, allowing citizens to legally choose their gender, run for office despite identifying as transgender, and remain free of discrimination or violence. Transgender people also enjoy a higher profile in public life in the country. In December, Lahore hosted its first Trans Pride Parade.

Pakistan legally recognizes three genders: male, female, and khawaja sira, an ancient third gender believed to possess magical powers. Khawaja sira have complained that the transgender movement is detracting from their struggles and represents a modern, intrusive cultural phenomenon. Despite being seen as magical, many khawaja sira are ostracized and suffer ridicule and discrimination.

Pakistan’s government is notoriously weak in the face of Islamic radicals in the country, however, routinely failing to enforce its own laws protecting Christians and other religious minorities in addition to transgender people and women generally. Transgender people frequently suffer extreme attacks – from beatings to being burned alive – with little police action.

The Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported Thursday that a transgender activist, Hina Shahzadi, has appealed to the local sessions court in Lahore calling for police to enforce anti-violence laws against the community.

“Shahzadi contended that trans people are teased and subjected to torture without any reason. She alleged that a prime suspect, along with others, subjected trans people to sexual harassment and torture,” the newspaper noted, adding that among the “teasing” were routine death threats from locals who disapproved of their identities. Shahzahi received support from a transgender support group that “staged a silent protest” that day, Dawn added.

Sharia law is explicit about punishing homosexuality, but gender identity is murkier territory, thus the existence of the Transgender Persons Act. Pakistanis can go to prison for “acts of sodomy;” sharia demands a death sentence for homosexuality. Similarly, Pakistani law requires prison sentences for most acts of “blasphemy,” save for insulting Muhammad personally, which carries a death sentence.

In contrast, the law allows transgender people to legally marry, so long as they marry a member of the other biological sex. Notably, intersex people, who are not born physically possessing distinct male or female genitalia, cannot marry because they are considered neither men nor women.

The law notwithstanding, violence against transgender people is common in the country. In one particularly gruesome case in 2017, a man set a transgender person on fire after extorting the individual, who refused to pay the money demanded. Police did nothing to stop the attack. Similarly, crimes like gang rape of transgender individuals often go unpunished, and those transgender individuals who, disowned by family, end up working as dancers or sex workers are often killed with little retribution when they run out of money and their services stop being seen as lucrative to exploiters.

The fate of transgender people is akin to the suffering of religious minorities, particularly Christians, who routinely face mob attacks and lynching when falsely accused of “blasphemy” by Muslim neighbors. The government typically does not arrest those involved in killing Christians for fear of offending the Islamic supremacist factions in the country.

“The appeasement of extremist groups by successive Pakistani governments has led to a climate of fear for religious minorities and for those who question the use of the blasphemy law,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a report on the country by the NGO published Thursday.

In the most egregious recent case of the Pakistani government allowing Islamic radicals to threaten and attack Christians, authorities throughout the country failed to stop violent riots in November protesting the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death on false charges of blasphemy. Muslim men burned cars, attacked businesses, formed checkpoints to target and beat Christians in their neighborhoods, and forced the shutdown of much of the activity in major cities like Islamabad and Lahore. To stop the riots, the Pakistani government placed Bibi on a no-fly list, despite her status of no longer being charged with a crime. Bibi remains hidden in an undisclosed location to prevent a Muslim mob from killing her.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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