The transgender law and Pakistan’s identity crisis
A landmark law spelling out and guaranteeing rights of transgender Pakistanis has just caught the imagination of obscurantist forces making it controversial. The issue isn’t out of place in a politically and socially conservative society like Pakistan’s but it is troubling when directed against citizens who are widely harassed and sidelined by society, and who are now unable to find peace even when accorded statutory rights.
In recent days several legal and political challenges have been mounted against the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act passed by parliament in 2018. The Federal Shariat Court, which rules whether laws comply with Islamic jurisprudence, has admitted for hearing, claims that it allegedly violates religious injunctions. The Lahore High Court has admitted for hearing a petition to punish lawmakers who passed the law.
The country’s largest religious parties are demanding the law be repealed to “save us all from grievous sin.” Venom against transgenders and supporters of their rights is being spewed across social media. All this is threatening to undo painstaking gains secured after long years of struggle.
At the heart of the controversy is the claim spearheaded by the religious rightwing that the Transgender Law will promote homosexuality. Opponents of the law are confusing homosexuality, a sexual orientation, with a biological condition.
This interpretation and suspicion would be laughable if the consequences were not serious – homosexuality is already banned by law in Pakistan on pain of long jail terms or death. Now transgenders are left trembling in fear of being labelled homosexuals and punished.
The controversy around the Transgender Law lies at the heart of Pakistan’s struggle to adjust to what is amounting to an existential crisis.
The Transgender Law, rights campaigners and legal experts point out, guarantees to transgender Pakistanis the right to inheritance, protection against discrimination in getting jobs, renting homes, owning property, operating bank accounts and getting better access to education and health care.
Now the transgenders are not sure anymore. The intensity and scale of the hate campaign against them originates from state patronage of religious doctrines and obscure social interpretations of religious texts that contradict the rationale and benefits accruing for all citizens of a modern state with rights-based legal frameworks.
This – as illustrated by the controversy around the Transgender Law – lies at the heart of Pakistan’s struggle to adjust to what is amounting to an existential crisis. Should religion play a role in running the state and continue impeding socio-political progress by preventing social empowerment and development? Or should it secularize like Bangladesh has done in recent years and like India’s constitution stipulates, allowing them to emerge as economic powerhouses without hurting religion?
Pakistan faces these decisions but seems to be balking. The same social conservatism that equates transgenders with homosexuality in the country also fails to differentiate between secularism and atheism. In this sense, the controversy over the socially progressive and politically empowering Transgender Law, is Pakistan’s own litmus test for its society’s readiness to modernize.
“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” This quote strikes at the heart of the inherent inequality and injustice of Pakistan’s patriarchal society that extends the belittling of women to transgenders. The average Pakistani male is failing to understand what it feels like to live under the constant, heavy weight of patriarchy. Born into biological conditions not of their choosing, trans people talk about their rights as an existential issue, to protect themselves against harassment, rape, and genocide. They need safety and bodily autonomy as any other Pakistani citizen guaranteed by law. They should not need the permission of any black-and-white binary citizens to bring color to their bleak lives.
Pakistan will always be as strong as its weakest sections of society. What Pakistan needs is a new social contract to guarantee this. The Transgender Law is a step in this section. Obscure and conservative interpretations of both religious injunctions and regressive social discourses are stumbling blocks in ensuring that citizens of all genders have equal rights. Pakistan’s courts and mainstream political parties should not give in to rightwing political blackmail.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan – traditionally progressive in terms of rights of marginalized groups – must prevent undoing of any progressive legislation. The chapter of Pakistan’s constitution dealing with fundamental rights also needs to be revisited to explicitly guarantee rights of all non-binary genders in parity with rights of all citizens to stem narrow interpretations of the current text that allows only binary recognition of genders.
- Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.