Photo by Sindh Moorat March on Twitter.

Wafa. Majid. Mano.

These are just some of the names of transgender individuals who have been killed in 2022 alone. 

In 2018, Pakistan produced one of the most progressive pieces of legislative framework on transgender rights, to much acclaim. Today, that law is in jeopardy.

Pushback on existing policies is not uncommon in any country in the world, however what is worrisome is the intensity of the vitriol being faced by Pakistan’s transgender community four years after its anti-discriminatory Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act was made into law.

For a marginalised community to have won out against the odds and in defiance of normative societal treatment was a victory that was perhaps not fully grasped even at that time. Now, the struggle is to keep the legislation as potent and protective of their rights, as envisioned. 

Status of Transgender Folks in Pakistan 

Prior to the legal acceptance of their individual rights, and to a great extent even after it, the transgender community in Pakistan leads a woefully downtrodden existence. As per Shahzadi Rai, a transgender activist and Senior Violence Case Manager at Gender Interactive Alliance (GIA) – a Pakistani organisation working for equal civil rights for transgender community, the three predominant categories of employment available to them continue to be that of begging, dancing and sex work. Given the low literacy rates and the stigmatisation of their being, most white and blue collar jobs remain out of reach. 

Socially, they are othered to an extent that their presence in most ‘normal’ avenues of life comes up as anomalous. 

The death of a 23-year-old trans woman, Alisha, in 2016 was a defining event that realised the urgency for a law to protect transgender rights in the country. Alisha was shot and then succumbed to her injuries in a hospital in Peshawar because the hospital staff could not determine whether to place her in the male or female ward.

Drafted by a noted transgender rights activist, Mehlab Jameel along with her colleagues, the latest version of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act finally became an Act of Parliament in March 2018, after a mandatory review from the upper and lower houses of parliament and the Council of Islamic Ideology. 

What Does the Law Say 

The Transgender Rights Act lays out a comprehensive definition, at first, of who falls under the category of a transgender person. This includes an intersex person, a eunuch, a transgender man and a transgender woman. It goes on to state what is perhaps the defining feature of this well-drafted law, that ‘a transgender person shall have a right to be recognized as per his or her self-perceived identity’. This bequeathment of autonomy to transgender individuals who have struggled for so long to be seen and recognised is both the boon and the bane in the current equation, as became apparent in recent times.

Socially, transgender folks are othered to an extent that their presence in most ‘normal’ avenues of life comes up as anomalous.

The law, much to the credit of its drafters, not only goes on to provide the rights to inherit, to be educated, to be employed, to vote and to hold public office, amongst others, but also guarantees that the Fundamental Rights outlined in the Constitution of Pakistan be unequivocally made available to every transgender person. 

It is in all senses a proactive and solid piece of legislation.

However, in November 2021, the major opponents of the rights of transfolks in the country, the right-wing political party Jamaat-e-Islami, went on to lobby for an amendment in the Act, but it was not until September 2022 that the badly drafted two-page attempt at revising the law really gained national attention. 

What Triggered the Controversy

In August of 2022, Dr. Mehrub Moiz, a prominent voice in Pakistan’s trans community, was removed from a local private school’s TedX panel that she was invited to speak on. Dr. Mehrub called out the school on social media for, what she believed was, a transphobic decision. She also went on to highlight that the school’s actions were prejudicial from a legal standpoint and quoted S.4 of the Transgender Act which speaks on prohibition of discrimination. 

Her posts, which garnered a lot of attention online, prompted some prominent celebrities, including a local fashion designer Maria B., and other people with considerable following, to attack Dr. Mehrub, and subsequently the entire transgender community, while accusing her of pushing for LGBTQI+ rights which are otherwise criminalised in the Islamic republic. 

The rhetoric these people spewed was not new in any way; what was different here was the impact. The combined reach of the people involved in verbally attacking Dr. Mehrub and the transgender community, includes a variation of society’s demographic as audience, according to Mehlab Jameel, the transgender rights activist, and thus the reach of their mentality was widespread. 

Once the narrative of hate towards the transgender community began snowballing, a superstorm of hashtags by right-wing troll armies began trending, and volleys of fake news and disinformation began circulating around the issue. 

The most common and controversial statement of fiction put out there was that the Transgender Act had been made to normalise homosexuality in Pakistan. Many claimed that since the Act allowed ‘women to turn into men and men to turn into women’, the provision on self-identification would be used by people to engage in same-sex marriages. 

“The narrative was made so believable that it even had members of the community reaching out to us to ask if Pakistan really had legalised such marriages,” exclaims Mehlab, as she recounts the chronology of events as well as the absurdity of some of the content she found and was told about, that was being spread to channel a singular vision. 

She says, “Someone was telling me they saw a photo of two sisters who had just come back from performing Umrah (religious pilgrimage) and so had congratulatory garlands of flowers on them, and the picture was being spread with the caption that doom of Qaum-e-Lut (nation of Lut)Many Muslims believe that the followers of Prophet Lut were struck with calamity for increased incidents of rape and homosexuality, where latter is considered a sin in all major schools of Islamic jurisprudence. will befall Pakistan soon. Similarly, a picture of a father and son had been cropped and circulated to support the claims of gay marriage in Pakistan,” adding, “all of this to support the fake news arc of this mythical law promoting homosexuality that was being passed in the country right now and everybody literally believed it.” 

Once the narrative of hate towards the transgender community began snowballing, a superstorm of hashtags by right-wing troll armies began trending.

This would have been cause for levity had the consequences of these actions not been so dire. Zanaya Chaudhary, a human rights and transgender rights activist, shares her own experience after the plethora of false information began circulating widely. She states that while she does live at home with her family, which is a pleasantly surprising situation given that most Khwaja Sirah folks are shunned by their own, the reaction to them finding out about the disinformative messages and posts on social media was that of strong disgruntlement. 

“These rumours around the law promoting same sex marriages concerned them and they questioned what kind of people I work with and what agenda they are really pushing,” Zanaya shares.

The use of social media as a vessel to carry the hate was well thought out and efficacious. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were suddenly ablaze with misinformation, and most perilously disinformation, around the concept and legality of trans individuals. Barely cohesive lines of argument were presented as the reason why the Act was pro-homosexuality. One tweet contended that since anyone could ‘be a transgender’ and since transgender folks can change their identity without a medical check-up under the law, it clearly had been made to encourage same-sex relationships in the country. Tweets and posts like these were abound, displaying not only a terrible reading of the law but a shockingly weak grasp of logic, and yet managed to do the trick and incite moral panic.

YouTube also became a breeding ground in cultivating anti-transgender sentiments, especially due to the robust targeted campaign run by Youth Club, a right-wing collective recently on the rise. Their simultaneous Twitter campaign, led by #AmendTransgenderAct and #SayNoToTransgenderAct trends, were made to be popularised not only through their own recently popular accounts and that of their followers, but also through tweets appealing to the Pakistani masses to ‘save’ the fabric of Pakistani society and Islam by pushing back against this agenda to normalise homosexuality, based on fabricated information. 

How are such blatant lies not being debunked almost instantly is the question that comes to mind.

Mehlab says that the community has been collectively busy in countering vile propaganda based on disinformation since the campaign began. She adds, “Since September 7th of 2022, we are just trying to dispel myths and see the actual facts around the issue, but no one wants to understand the legal technicalities. They just want to hear the sensationalised claims.” 

One such claim was from a member of Senate of Pakistan, Mushtaq Ahmad Khan, one of the main opponents of the Act and de facto leader of this hate campaign, stating that NADRA – the national database authority, was misleading the nation by saying only 2,943 transgender individuals had registered with them for gender reassignment since the law was enacted, whereas he had ‘evidence’ in the form of a data table showing that 28,723 individuals had applied since 2018. This, in fact, was debunked and clarified to be a data entry mistake relating to cisgender categorisation which had led such a high number of citizens to file for their gender to be correctly represented on their identity documents.

A connected note of importance, and one that was greatly touted to build the transphobic narrative during this onslaught of digital slander, is that the law does not allow for a trans individual to opt for a male or female identity in the gender category on their national ID card but that of gender X. Hundreds and thousands of tweets poured out from accounts using disinformation around this claim to mislead netizens, with accompanying hashtags of #SayNoToLGBTQ and in Urdu, #WeRejectTheTransgenderBill.

Mehlab contends that transgender activists were greatly outnumbered when the campaign of disinformation was in full swing, and people around her wanted to debate homosexuality and ‘transgenderism’ instead of facts.

Since September 7th of 2022, we are just trying to dispel myths and see the actual facts around the issue, but no one wants to understand the legal technicalities. They just want to hear the sensationalised claims. - Mehlab Jameel, transgender rights activist

The uptick in cases of harassment against transgender rights activists and their supporters was a noticeable one. 

Hyra, who heads the country’s first Cyber Harassment Helpline at Pakistan’s Digital Rights Foundation, a non-profit that promotes a safer internet, states, “The number of complaints brought forward by trans folks, and trans activists in particular, has risen significantly over the past few weeks. We have been escalating instances of online violence against the trans community every week now, and these complaints include fake accounts, impersonations, hate speech, false accusations of blasphemy, and disinformation that could significantly impact their security and well-being.” Talking about the kinds of complaints that the Helpline, which works to provide legal, psychological and technological support to victims of GBV, has been receiving, Hyra adds, “There have also been instances of misgendering trans activists, sharing their pre-transition pictures against their will, and identifying them by their dead names. This is all an attempt to damage and counter their legitimate advocacy efforts by diverting the public’s attention.”

A vital resource at this time of deliberately created confusion came in the form of Soch Fact Check, a team of Pakistani non-partisan fact checkers who debunked myths around the cancellation of the Gender X identity card for transgender persons and the rejection of the transgender rights law. Their work was, of course, in direct contrast to the hate-mongering being done by countless right-wing organisations, such as Tanzeem-e-Islami, who did not only spread vicious lies and hostility about an already socially subjugated people, but also brazenly shared anti-semitic and anti-Catholic opinions while falsely terming them as Ahadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad which are sacred to Muslims and a cornerstone of Islamic beliefs).

Backlash against Gender Minorities 

Shahzadi, who is also a focal person of the trans community for the Sindh police force, fears that this push to ban the Transgenders Protection Act is not unlike the lobbying that was done against people of the Ahmadiyya faith who were declared to be non-Muslims as per the Constitution (Second Amendment) Act of 1974, and are now widely seen as heretics due to their religious beliefs. The Ahmadiyya are perhaps the most shunned and legally unprotected group in Pakistan, and to fear meeting the same end is a strong statement indeed. 

Shahzadi laments, “Trans activists have been working on gaining legal recognition of our rights for 20-25 years now, and the damage [the recent backlash has] caused has taken our progress back by decades. I would like to state clearly that this was a paid and organised hate campaign, the impact of which has been felt in every street. We have been getting multiple cases of violence against the transgender community which is being eyed with a lot of anger right now.”

The incidences of grievous bodily harm to transgender folks have increased in the aftermath of this campaign.

Is there hope?

While the issue has died down a little in mainstream media which has moved on to other political attention-grabbers, the threats to trans rights activists have multiplied, as per Mehlab. Many trans folk have been attacked and the more vocal activists have been threatened in different ways.

Mehlab says, “There is a lot of hostility, many people who called us their allies have essentially been silent on the issue. Parliamentarians we have engaged with in the past do not even want to be seen with us in a public place [now]. The community at the grassroots has become quite vulnerable as well because everybody is now associating the word ‘transgender’ or ‘khwajah sira’ with homosexuality.” 

The battle against the myopia and vested interests causing this strong backlash to the transgender community, which already lives through a dizzying maze of challenges in Pakistan, is an uphill one. 

Perhaps we can take hope from Shahzadi and her stoic resolution: “Now that I am here, I will see this through to the end."

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