Interview: Pakistani Transgender Activist Looks to 'New Dawn' of Rights, Dignity

Bindiya Rana, president of Pakistan's Gender Interactive Alliance.

Gender identity and transgender issues have come under a renewed focus around the world recently, with a "third gender" option on birth certificates in Germany, Bradley Manning's announcement of his female identity and the fatal beating of a transgender woman in New York City.

In Pakistan, meanwhile, the transgender community has won some victories in obtaining basic civil rights this year.

Pakistan's transgender people, or khawaja seras, have faced abuse and isolation for decades. (The term khawaja sera can refer to transgender people, transvestites, hermaphrodites or eunuchs.) Historically, in South Asia, khawaja seras were respected as caretakers of royal harems, masters of art and culture, and trusted as messengers, watchmen and guardians. Over time, however, their social status diminished significantly. Transgender people now live on the margins of the society as entertainers, beggars and sex workers. Often denied access to education and healthcare, they face extreme discrimination, poverty, abuse and other violations of basic human rights.

But recent gains for Pakistan's transgender community include a ruling by the Supreme Court to allow a third gender category on national identity cards, a legal share of family inheritance, a reserved 2% quota of jobs in all sectors and the right to vote in elections. But not much has changed in practice, and discrimination persists. In a country dealing with overwhelming economic and social ills, Pakistan's transgender community continues to be ignored.

Bindiya Rana is the president of Gender Interactive Alliance, an organization that works for the rights of khawaja seras in Pakistan. Owing to the new right to participate in Pakistan's general elections, Rana is one of the few transgender people who ran for office in 2013. While she didn't secure a seat in the provincial assembly, she believes her victory is in having successfully submitted her nomination papers despite many obstacles. Reflecting on her journey in the run-up to the elections and her work for the rights of transgender people of Pakistan, Rana keeps a cheerful outlook and believes "a new dawn is near."

From her home in Karachi, Rana communicated with Asia Society via Skype.

Tell us a little about yourself and your work for social justice and rights of transgender people in Pakistan.

I have been working to improve the standards of living, providing access to basic health care and well being of transgender people in Pakistan for the past seven years. When we first started doing social work, we were concerned about being able to meet this challenge that we are taking on. At first I thought this was just some sort of junoon ["madness" in Urdu]. Sometimes a person thinks they can do really big things, like playing cricket on a professional level, for example, but when you start doing it, you realize you don't have the capacity to actually do it.

We work for the rights of transgender people and help them with various issues, including health care or larger problems like gang rape and other injustices. In Pakistan, most transgender people are forced to live in slum areas because other people are not prepared to let them live in apartment buildings or houses in nicer areas. When they live in slums, they live among sketchy people including drug sellers and they end up facing a lot of problems. Often we get calls for help late at night to help with health issues, accidents, rape or if someone has been involved in a serious fight. We then go in and take them to public hospitals.

We started by learning first from others who had experience working with social justice and human rights issues on a grassroots level, because I am myself transgender and I have no previous experience of working in this field. In the past, I used to dance with my troupe at weddings and I am proud of that work. People tend to hide their past, but I am proud of it. I am proud of my people who work hard to support themselves, whether they dance for entertainment, beg for money at traffic signals, or even if they are sex workers.

People were skeptical in the beginning about us (transgender people) getting involved in social work and they made fun. Everyone works for the good of their own communities — women have their own organizations to support their rights, as do men. So why shouldn't we work for our community's rights as well? The first step we took was to go to interior Sindh and Balochistan and set up free medical camps for women and children. We believe that if someone is even worse off than you are, you should help them out. We encouraged other people, and organizations as well, to come to these neglected areas. Working there helped us gain experience and confidence in what we were doing.

With the new rights you now have — a National Identity Card recognizing the "third gender" and the ability to vote and run for public office — do you think much has changed in the way society sees and interacts with the transgender community in Pakistan?

We used to think that maybe in 15 or 20 years people will start understanding the needs of transgender people and we will be given more rights. But God answered our prayers much quicker than that, and within two years the Supreme Court announced the decision to allows transgender people to get National Identity Cards, register for elections, be allowed to work and get a share in family inheritance. When the Supreme Court decision came, it seemed to me that now darkness is about to end and we will see a new beginning. That is when our real work began.

It's such a shame that the Supreme Court has announced these decisions, but no laws have been made in our favor, nor has anyone acted on turning the free education, health care benefits, skills training and 2% employment quota into a reality. We were happy with even the 2% quota, and it would mean that some people of our community will be saved from degrading themselves by begging on the streets, dancing, singing and sex work (always at risk of HIV/AIDS). Despite the changes in government leadership since then, none of the Supreme Court orders has been implemented as yet.

As far as Pakistani society is concerned — they don't treat transgender people with respect. Transgender people are capable of doing respectable work as domestic helpers as cooks, cleaners and chauffeurs. It's a pity that no one hires them. They are willing to work in offices, mills and factories as well, but no one is willing to hire them out of prejudice. People don't understand that there is a whole spectrum of transgender identities. They refuse to understand that even if some of us look like men, they do not identify as male. They continue to look down on the transgender people who appear to be men and are forced to beg on roads.

Our society doesn't have the capability to tolerate. We hesitate in giving other people their rights. If I talk about transgender rights, people will shy away from associating with me because they worry about how they will be perceived by others. I'm Muslim, as are many other transgender people, but more than religion we believe in humanity. It doesn't matter what anyone's religion is in the transgender community, we don't ostracize them based on their beliefs. Many people around us use religion as an excuse to discriminate or put limitations on how others can behave. Islam teaches peace, love and oneness with mankind, it doesn't teach you to hate.

Why did you decide to run for office in the 2013 elections? What was your experience like — and would you run in the elections again?

Now that I have had some experience in politics, I run in the elections again in five years. The three months of election campaigning will have an impact on my life for years to come. I had no political experience nor was I passionate about running in the elections. Many political parties reached out to us before the elections and we asked them what they would do for transgender people if we voted for them. They all had their manifestos and after reading their lists of things, we were very angry because they had not even mentioned transgender people. Why should we support and vote for people who had left us out completely? We then decided to participate in the elections ourselves.

During the elections and even now I continue to get death threats. I had to go with a police escort to campaign in my electorate district. I couldn't sleep at my own home for fear of being attacked during the night. After being abandoned by some of my friends and organizations that we had worked with, I finally reached out to the head of the sex workers' group who I call amma ["mother" in Urdu]. She gave me shelter despite the fact that my presence could have been a problem for her as well. So you shouldn't think that a person is beneath you just because they are sex workers or laborers, everyone human being has his own quality. And someone you don't even expect may help you out in your time of need. Even now when I go back to visit my district, I am always afraid for my life. I still get death threats over the phone from public phone booth numbers. The police don't do anything about it, they just ask you to turn your phone off.

We won the day our nomination papers were accepted — my papers were rejected, which I appealed in Election Tribunal of the Sindh High Court. My second win was when Sindh High Court overturned the rejection and accepted my nomination papers. Many of the transgender candidates who were running in the elections were forced to quit the race under pressure from other parties, but a handful of us remained steadfast.

We could see clearly that other candidates and parties were spending large amounts of money on campaigning. And we did not have enough money to spend on campaign materials. We used homemade glue to stick our small posters ourselves on walls and doors of the electoral district. And every time we posted a few of our leaflets around one block, the next day we would see the entire block decorated with endless rows of leaflets in support of our opposing candidates.

I wish [that] rather than spending hundreds of thousands of rupees on banners and stickers, they had spent the money on the welfare of the people of the electoral district. When people are more aware of the fact that you shouldn't vote based on who has the biggest events, and when we have a computerized voting system, the electoral process will be much more transparent.

About the Author

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Nadia Rasul is an Asia Blog Contributor. She is a human rights activist, and a media, technology and global politics enthusiast.