“They killed Alisha. I know I might be the next,” Paro said in a video message on social media. One of the most active members of Trans Action Alliance, KP, she was sad and lost when I met her in Peshawar after Alisha’s death – very unlike her social media persona.
Alisha was the Peshawar coordinator and one of eight board members of Trans Action Alliance, an association of transgender groups working together for their rights. She was shot eight times by her killer, leaving her on the brink of death.
When rushed to the Lady Reading Hospital, the doctors refused to treat Alisha. Instead, they refused to admit her into a ward due to her gender. The staff and patients in both the male and female wards refused to grant her a bed in either ward. For a whole day, the members of Trans Action Alliance kept asking the doctors to help her – to no avail.
As several transgender people gathered at the hospital, they attracted the attention of the crowd, which started taking their pictures and making fun of them – a regular practice in most parts of Pakistan. Farzana Jan, who heads the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chapter of Trans Action Alliance, narrated the incident to me.
“While we gathered in the hospital to request the doctors to treat critically injured Alisha, the crowd, consisting solely of men, surrounded us, commenting on our appearances,” Jan said.
“Many asked us the amount we charge for one night, others inquired about our home addresses. Some even asked if our breasts were natural or not.”
Most of the transgender women in Pakistan are abandoned by their families because they are considered a disgrace to their name. When their gender identity is discovered, often parents force them to be a “man.”
Qamar Naseem, a program coordinator at Blue Veins (an NGO working for the rights of transgender community), finds this practice horrible. “Severe violence against them leaves a remarkable impact, as they lose all the confidence in themselves,” he says.
“Beaten at home, if they get to see the face of a school, their plight gets worse. They can be distinguished easily due to their habits and are bullied by their fellows,” he adds.
Due to severe peer pressure and cases of sexual violence, it becomes difficult for transgender people to receive a proper education. Facing rejection from both home and school, they often run away – finding solace only in their own community. With no proper education and facing severe hatred from the people around them, they are left with no other choice but to adopt the professions others in their company have adopted – sex work or dancing.
A Struggle for Rights
In the famous 2009 case of Khaki v. Rawalpindi, the Supreme Court of Pakistan granted groundbreaking rights to the transgender community in Pakistan for the first time. The Supreme Court demanded detailed reports about the status of the transgender population from all the provinces. A working paper was drafted afterwards to “the need to protect the rights and welfare of hijra [transgender women] in light of the discrimination, stigma, and exclusion they suffered.”
For the first time, the court gave the transgender community the right to inheritance. The Supreme Court officially recognized them as a third gender, instructing the authorities to include them in voter lists. The court also ordered the relevant authorities to ensure their right to basic education and protection.
Qamar Naseem, the Blue Veins program coordinator, believes it was a remarkable edict, but with no support from civil society, the transgender community failed to bargain for more rights. “The Supreme Court edict ordered the issuance of ID cards under two categories – ‘transgender male’ or ‘transgender female.’ However, all of them don’t belong to these categories – some are intersexual as well,” Naseem explains.
Naseem further adds that Supreme Court announced a 2 percent quota for transgender individuals in all government and non-government departments, which they never received.
There is also no policy by the government so far to ensure their right to their family inheritance.
While several transgender rights groups existed previously in Pakistan, most of them were either dysfunctional or too small to create an impact. In the first step toward the formulation of Trans Action Alliance in KP, focus group discussions were held in 16 districts, with a focus on the basic issues faced by transgender community.
Naseem, who led these discussions, wanted to mobilize the community to stand up for their own rights.
“I can’t advocate for their rights if they themselves are not interested, because when we did speak out, we’re accused of working on Western agendas,” he says. “We informed their representatives that we were ready support them, both technically and morally, but they had to lead.”
Some of the most critical issues that the transgender community faces today include sexual and physical violence, lack of access to health case, and the lack of funds for the transgender community in social welfare schemes. Since its inception, the Trans Action Alliance has been highlighting these issues on social media, through protests, and in meetings with government officials.
The project-based work by national and international NGOs is another reason why transgender issues in Pakistan have been neglected for years. Due to a combination of limited funds and specific goals, these NGOs work in a very contained environment, often forsaking the victims when their goals are achieved.
According to Qamar Naseem, the criminal negligence shown to the plight of transgender people reaches all the way to the UN. Upon asking, various UN programs like UNOCHA, UNHCR, and UN Women didn’t have any record of helping the displaced transgender community.
Many of the transgender people working in Peshawar today have been displaced from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – a war-ridden region that was previously controlled by the Taliban. Wherever the rule of Taliban is established, their first move is to eliminate the music and dance culture from that area, thus forcing the professionals in those sectors to relocate.
Trans Action Alliance organized a protest campaign against UN under the slogan, “No to gender blindness.” After several meetings, they have now been assured of help by UN departments.
The Shadow of Violence and the Murder of Alisha
The business of the transgender community, which is considered to be the most marginalized group in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, thrives on Pashtuns’ love for dance and music. Called to weddings to dance, transgender people can make enough money to ensure their survival.
However, as much as their dancing is loved, they still face hatred from the mainstream population – an irony of sorts.
Many of them, who also work as sex workers, are often raped at the weddings they attend. “There is no concept of consent in this part of world,” says Farzana Jan.
“If a sex worker has a deal with one person to spend the night with her, there is a fair chance he will bring his friends along to rape her,” she adds.
In past few years, there have been hundreds of cases of violence against transgender sex workers – mainly because they refused to have sex with the perpetrators. Many of these cases were perpetrated by the policemen themselves.
Afzal Gujjar, the man who killed Alisha, was also her maRakh – a Pashto word for partner. Although unmarried, many transgender people have partners who provide for their livelihood. With the passing of time, sources say, Gujjar became more and more possessive about Alisha, forbidding her to dance at weddings – her only source of income.
A few days before her death, she had an argument with Gujjar, who crashed a wedding, asking her partners for money. Members of Trans Action Alliance believe he is part of a gang that blackmails transgender people to extort money.
Gujjar now claims Alisha was indebted to him by some PKR 1.5 million ($14,000). However, recounting how Alisha reacted to the allegation, Naseem said, “When I told her about Afzal Gujjar’s claim, she was shocked. She said it was her spending loads of money on Gujjar, not the other way around.”
While the members of Trans Action Alliance are demanding the death sentence for Gujjar, Naseem is against the idea. “In my whole life as a human rights activist, I have had a principled stand against capital punishment, which I can’t change now that it favors me,” he asserts.
More than Gujjar’s death, Naseem believes, ways of thinking need to die to end the discrimination and violence for good. “The idea that led Alisha’s parents to abandon her, the idea that denied her the right to education, and the idea that killed her needs to die, for one man’s death can’t change the situation,” he states.
In the last 18 months in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa alone, 46 transgender people have been killed and more than 300 cases of physical violence and abuse have been registered as of this writing.
Despite these critical circumstances, when the members of the Alliance went to meet the province’s chief minister (CM), his assistant told them, “It isn’t appropriate for CM to meet you people.”
Still, their continuous protest, both on social media and on the ground, has been able create a stir in the relevant sections of civil society as Alisha’s death was mourned through candle-light vigils all over the country.
After Trans Action Alliance rejected the findings of a committee to investigate the negligence of the hospital authorities, a new committee has been formed. Farzana Jan is optimistic about the tables turning in their favor.
“We expect the justice to be served – both to the killer, as well as the hospital administration. We are ready to fight for our rights till the very end,” she says.
Umer Ali is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan. He reports on human rights issues, social problems and more. He can be reached on Twitter at @iamumer1.