Peshawar: When Alisha was brought bleeding to Peshawar’s biggest healthcare facility last week, she threw off the white-smocked paramedics and prim physicians – who usually would have an emergency under control in no time – by her mere dying presence.
The city’s learned medical minds who had poured over tomes of considerable girth to understand human body but not the human condition found themselves faced with a dilemma posed by Alisha’s gender. Apparently their books had not told them anything about the term – the person or the soul – that is transgender, or prepared them for saving one even as she lay dying.
As Alisha, a transwoman, was brought to the Lady Reading Hospital with six gunshot wounds, the hospital’s emergency staff grappled with the dilemma whether to admit her to a male or a female ward. For a gender forced to pursue lowly vocations like begging, performing at festive events and soliciting sex to make ends meet in absence of opportunity as a macho, male-dominated society piles scorn on them, Alisha ironically became fit for VIP status in her dying moments.
When she could have done with any bed, in any ward, the doctors had to decide whether to allot her a separate room in a section of the hospital reserved for VIPs. Even that couldn’t save her. Before they could decide, Alisha breathed her last, another martyr to the anonymity and abhorrence piled on her gender in a country where patients wouldn’t want to have a transgender dying next to them, in a bed in a ward reserved for men and women alone.
Alisha was only 19 when she died at the hands of her boyfriend Marah who shot her in Faqeerabad, Peshawar, on Sunday night. Qamar Naseem, coordinator of the Blue Veins, a nongovernment organization that works for the rights of transgender, said 45 transgender people were killed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa since January 2015.
“While sexual violence against the community go completely unnoticed despite repeated attempts at seeking help from police, little has been done in terms providing physical safety and security to the transgender people,” said Naseem.
Alisha’s popularity among the transgender community was visible from the fact that her death drew many well-wishers to the hospital. Or maybe it was the horror and pain of a persecuted community that gathered in grief, in solidarity, for one of their own because no one else would stand, much less shed a tear, for them. Even as they gathered in the hospital, her attendants had to keep themselves restricted to a room to escape sarcastic remarks from people. They were shocked and terrified at the occurrence.
Released in May 2016, the Neengar Society Research and Development Institute conducted a discrete study in collaboration with Insights Research Consultants to understand the true perception of the general urban populace in Pakistan about homophobia and transphobia.
Muhammad Falak, Director Neengar Society, told News Lens on phone from Multan that the purpose of conducting a research poll was to assess the extent of transphobia and homophobia existing in Pakistan.
“The existence of such attitudes and behaviour undermine the work of professionals and services extended to masses by public and private institutes,” said Falak. “Hospitals, colleges, social welfare and job industry get influenced by this behavior and all the populations do not get to enjoy their rights equally.”
Alisha’s popularity among her community could be attributed to the fact that as coordinator of the Trans Action Alliance in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the teenage transgender was already raising a voice for the rights of her community. According to social scientists, transgender people live in extreme poverty, lacking skills to make them fit for decent work because society sees them as freaks –parents don’t accept them, in schools they are humiliated by teachers and beaten up by students, and in the market place, they are unfit for a job because they could not acquire skills due to social alienation.
Taimor Kamal, a Peshawar based social activist, said the transgender people in Peshawar were shunned by family and society alike.
“They have restricted access to education, health services and public spaces,” said Kamal. “The society’s attitude discourages them from effectively participating in social and cultural life. Politics and decision-making processes are out of their reach and the transgender people find it hard to know or exercise their basic civil rights.”
He said lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people also faced violence and persecution if their sexual identity was revealed: “There are many gays and lesbians in KP but due to the social stigma associated with LGBTI, they keep their identity hidden, living double lives.”
The law in Pakistan, a mix of both Anglo-Saxon colonial law and Islamic law that both discourage same-sex sexual acts and proscribes criminal penalties for sodomy, punishable with prison sentence. However, it is often the society that threatens the LGBTI people more than the law, with police blackmail, sexual and social harassment, fines, and jail sentences a common occurrence.
In 2009, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that the government must take proactive steps to protect transgender people from harassment and discrimination. In 2011, the apex court granted them the right to vote to transwomen and allowed them national identity card that identified them as “she male.”
Qamar Naseem said the human rights situation in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity had improved significantly however legislative gains were not reflected on ground and deconstructing socio-structural stigma and confronting discrimination based on real or perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity was still a challenge.
“LGBTI persons do not have the same level of rights as other Pakistanis,” said Naseem. “They are routinely harassed, discriminated against, and are sometimes subjected to violence simply for being different, living on the margins of the society as entertainers, beggars or sex workers.”
While existence of LGBTI in Pakistan is fact that cannot be denied, there is no legal ground for LGBTI in the country to protect their rights. “There is no way to raise voice for LGBTI as there is no space for them in the society. Religion also prohibits same sex relations.”
As children, said Naseem, LGBTI persons needed special care because their nature and behaviour alienates them and exposes them to isolation.
“Sexual orientation and gender identity are sensitive subjects in KP where life is defined by strict tribal values and religious beliefs,” Naseem told News Lens. “There is a need to speak out about these issues because lives and rights of people are at stake.”
Traditionally, the transgender people are referred to as Khawajasara in the South Asian context. The term that refers collectively to the transgender people, transvestites, hermaphrodites or eunuchs, has roots in the history of the transgender people where they were employed as caretakers, instructors in art and etiquette for princes and princess and royal messengers in the royal harems from Ottomon Empire in Turkey to the Mughal Empire in India.
With the fall of these empires, the transgender Khawajasara that were held in high esteem in the courts and harem fell from grace, their status reduced to lowly beggars and sex workers. From respectable workers in royal palaces to objects of social scorn and persecution, theirs is a sad story of fall from riches to rags where they now find themselves living invisibly at the margins of society.