Pakistan’s Supreme Court issued a ruling on November 14 ordering the country’s election commission to collect data from the transgender community and register them as voters.
The move has paved the way for Pakistan’s minority community of transgender men — known in the Urdu language as "hijras" and estimated to number 500,000 — to vote in next year’s general elections and nominate their own candidates for parliament.
The hijras’ right to vote — unthinkable just a few years ago — is a groundbreaking achievement in Pakistan, a deeply conservative country where ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities have often been victims of violence and persecution.
The court decision is a boost for supporters of Pakistan’s secular civilian government and independent judiciary, while being a blow to the country’s many extreme Islamist groups, who have promoted intolerance and violence for the past several decades.
Almas Bobi heads the All-Pakistan She-Male Association, a group representing and working for the protection of the rights of the country’s transvestites, transsexuals, and eunuchs. Bobi describes the court decision as historic and hopes it will end the widespread discrimination that many hijras face in the conservative country.
"Our eunuchs are very happy about the decision that now we will also cast the vote. It is a very good step in history and 63 years after partition, for the first time," Bobi says. "All credit goes to the chief justice [Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhary] because he said that we are human beings. People are now treating us like human beings and we are not unwanted fellows, now."
Working For Hijra Rights
Muhammad Aslam Khaki, the Pakistani lawyer who filed the petition in the Supreme Court that led to the hijras’ newfound voting rights, also hailed the ruling. But he warns that real progress will only take place when mainstream society accepts the hijras, who are still victims of widespread scorn and resentment.
"Gradually they are getting their status [as] citizens of Pakistan, as respectable Pakistani citizens," Khaki says. "It is now the job of civil society to come forward and recognize them as one of the members of the mainstream and do not just [engage in] mockery or just make them a laughingstock."
Despite the significant step forward, Khaki stresses that the group still faces enduring hardships resulting from past discrimination. "I don’t feel they will be better off than in the past but it will take a long time because they are not skilled, they are not much educated and need education," he says. "They have been separated from their families, so they need to be inducted back to their families."
The hijra community’s new voting rights follow a number of groundbreaking orders that have been issued in the last two years by the Supreme Court in favor of the group, who have long been exposed to extortion, sexual violence, and police misconduct.
Those decisions have given members of the hijra community many of the same civil rights as other Pakistani citizens in matters of inheritance, employment, and election registration.
Standing Up To The Extremists
Khaki is an unlikely defender of hijra rights. An attorney specializing in Islamic law, he was stirred into action in 2009 after reading about a brutal incident in Taxila, near Islamabad, where local police reportedly attacked and raped a group of eight hijra wedding dancers.
That same year, Khaki persuaded the Supreme Court to officially recognize the hijras as a "third gender" under the Pakistani Constitution. That breakthrough case spurred a series of successful follow-up rulings that have consolidated the rights of the community.
The process, Khaki says, has brought the plight of the hijra community to the public eye and worked to slowly change the discriminatory attitudes of the government, the police, and civil society toward the minority group.
Khaki’s high-profile advocacy has not been without its costs. He has received numerous death threats, particularly from Shabab-e Milli, an offshoot of the youth wing of Pakistan’s main religious party, the Jamat-e Islami (Islamic Party).
"They just phoned me and they said, ‘You are working for these people who are gay and you are promoting gay culture.’ I said: ‘No, this isn’t the case. I’m going to promote their rights and the recognition of their rights as a citizen of Pakistan, just as you have the right to live in respect and dignity in this country.’"
A Hard Life
Although gaining newfound rights, life for many hijras in Pakistan remains difficult.
Hijras are often referred to as "eunuchs" in Pakistan, despite the fact that many members of the group have not undergone gender-altering surgery, according to supporters. Their numbers include transvestites, transsexuals, hermaphrodites, as well as actual eunuchs.
Many transgender men are disowned by their families and are adopted as young boys by so-called Gurus, who act as leaders of the hijra community The Gurus give them shelter and food in return for their strict loyalty to the community.
Most hijras describe themselves as "professional wedding dancers" but supporters say they are often forced to earn income through begging and prostitution.
Often dressed in bright-colored saris — a traditional dress worn by women in the subcontinent — and wearing heavy makeup, they roam the streets asking people for money — making them targets for police harassment, abuse, and even rape.
They also often show up uninvited to major family gatherings such as weddings and birthdays, singing and dancing until they are paid or given gifts, after which they depart. Hijras are often seen as a sign of good luck in such ceremonies, while the curse of an unappeased hijra provokes fear.
But life for the hijras was not always so desperate. The roots of the hijras on the subcontinent go back centuries, to the time of the Mogul emperors, who kept hijras as courtesans and caretakers of their harems.
Hijras held important roles in the courts, held influence over the affairs of the state, and also acted as confidants to their masters.
But with the disintegration of the Mogul empire and the advent of British colonial rule, their status diminished and their ensuing neglect forced them into the fringes of society.