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Gender Minorities: Waiting for Equal Citizenship

Saif Jamali
Program Manager
Jinnah Institute

For Pakistan’s gender minorities, 2022 was defined by a struggle for public space and social autonomy. The last few months of 2022 saw incredibly polarised and unusually vitriolic public sentiment expressed against trans-people, especially transwomen, and their place in everyday Pakistan. For trans citizens, 2023, by all measures, would be a continuation of the same; the challenge going ahead will be to safeguard legal and political gains, and countering vilification campaigns.

There are a fresh set of petitions in the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) challenging Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018. Several of these petitions question the right stipulated in this Act for trans people to be recognised as they ‘perceive themselves’. Over recent decades, the judiciary has led the charge in improving transgender rights, with the 2009 Supreme Court ruling laying the foundation for what eventually culminated in the 2018 Act. In the case of FSC, however, there appears to be a lack of sensitisation and indifference towards the subject.

2022 saw unabated attacks against the transgender community across Pakistan. An unprecedented surge in negative propaganda and backlash occurred when amendments to the 2018 Act were debated in parliament. Simultaneously, the release of a film with a prominent role of a transgender person, Joyland, became Pakistan’s official nomination for the Oscars, yet brought about protests and hate campaigns at home.

Legislative reform in favour of the transgender community has come through decades of effort by human rights defenders. But in 2023, there is a risk of serious rollback of gains that protect dignity and autonomy of trans citizens. With an election year looming ahead, extremisms abound in national discourse where right-wing actors have an uncommon advantage. Unless there is greater political ownership of transgender rights by those in power, as well as a renewed commitment to equal citizenship for all, Pakistan stands to lose many of its marginalised communities to extremist hatred and bigotry.

On their part, the trans community is determined to persevere. They have taken their cause to the streets, and any avenue that offers an opening for claiming their rightful turf as equal citizens.  In what was likely the first of many, the community organised a Trans March in November against discrimination, violence and exclusion; raising the slogan Zan, Zindagi, Azadi. This too will open up new spaces of socio-political confrontation.

This comment is drawn from insights solicited from Aisha Mughal, transgender rights expert and researcher, and Saroop Ijaz, Senior Counsel, Asia Division HRW.

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