Ostracised and stigmatised for decades, Pakistan’s transgender community came together this weekend to take part in the country’s first march in support of their rights, held in in the city of Karachi.
Often ridiculed and even murdered for dancing at functions – one of the few occupations open to the community, known as Khwaja Sira, people were instead able to take to the stage in celebration on this occasion, dancing, chanting and singing.
Payal, 30, came from Multan, a city in southern Punjab, to participate in the Sindh Moorat – the indigenous term for transgender – march. “It feels good to be here for the march and be myself, a trans woman, openly. We do not get respect in the society – people hurl abuses and slurs at us but I hope we will get accepted,” she said.
The Khwaja Sira community has been facing growing violence in Pakistan, with a surge in the number of hate crimes this year.
Arma Khan, 25, from Karachi, said she came to participate and raise her voice against the rising tide of violence and the brutal killings of many Khwaja Sira in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
According to Pakistan’s Trans-Action Alliance, since 2015 91 trans women have been killed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and there have been more than 2,000 registered cases of violence.
“We deserve to be treated equally and with respect but this must start from our families. A lot of the transgender community is persecuted. This must stop, society and the families should support their children,” said Khan on the lack of acceptance of her community.
The community has long been fighting for rights, and has won some significant successes in the past decade.
The Khwaja Sira were given the right to vote and identify their gender on the national identity cards by the supreme court of Pakistan in 2012. In 2018, the country passed the Transgender Persons Act, which in theory gave the community basic protections.
Though these legislative changes were considered small victories that gave the community a semblance of hope and normalcy, they did not bring an end to the discrimination, with “honour” killings, rape, blackmail and sexual harassment still rife.
In recent months, religious conservative political parties such as Jamaat e Islami (JI) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) raised concerns about the bill, deeming it “against sharia” (the Islamic laws). JUI-F, which is part of the ruling government, has challenged the bill in the courts.
Hina Baloch, a political convener and organiser of the Sindh Moorat march, believes the legal challenge poses a huge setback for the community. She said: “For decades, we were denied basic rights and now whatever rights that have been given are being snatched. On top of this, a media trial and disinformation campaign has been running in the country against us, resulting in more violence.”
Baloch added that the organisers of the march and many trans activists received threats to be “killed, with knives, bullets as well as threats of acid attacks and rape”.
Held on the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, the march was attended by hundreds of participants. Ilma, 25, a content writer, came to express solidarity with the Khwaja Sira community. “I’m here to support as an ally. I have many friends from the community, and I have been seeing them struggle for years. They are deprived of many fundamental rights merely because of their gender,” said Ilma.
Often deprived of an education due to the stigma, 42% of the Pakistan trans community is illiterate, forcing many to resort to begging, dancing or sex work.
Elif Khan, a dancer, was one of many attending the march. “This is the first time that we are having such a march exclusively for our community – this fills me with pride. I am a dancer but I want to progress now, I want to get an education, I want to make an identity for myself,” said Khan.
The community also faces the challenge of overcoming disinformation, amid the widespread myth that being trans is a western-imported idea – a false narrative that ignores the fact that the Khwaja Sira has a 4,000-year-old history in the subcontinent.
“We were a part of the mainstream society before the British criminalised our existence through laws such as the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Transphobia is a colonial legacy,” said Baloch.
Artists, activists and writers participated in the event. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Jr, an artist who comes from the Bhutto dynasty, extended solidarity and support to the community.
“It is important to be an ally for the Khwaja Sira community because we need to make the environment safer for our children. I think it should happen across the country every year,” said Bhutto.
“We want our community to be aware and a part of the mainstream politics. We will continue our struggle. We aim to raise our voice for our rights so loudly that it reaches those in power and echoes in the chambers of the parliament,” said Baloch.