Education is key
Imagine one of your children being shot eight times in cold blood. Imagine the anguish you feel seeing your child covered in blood, panting for breath and wailing in pain. Imagine the horror and helplessness when doctors refuse to treat your child. Imagine this happening in the so-called ‘Land of the Pure’ that prides itself on the Islamic ideals of compassion, justice and equality.
On Wednesday, 25 May 2016, the Pakistani media was ablaze with reports of Alisha’s death. She had been shot eight times in Peshawar a few days earlier. Despite being critically injured, she was not admitted into any ward (male or female) of Peshawar’s Lady Reading Hospital. Doctors were reluctant to treat her, not because she was beyond cure, but because she had the misfortune of being a ‘transgender’ in a country that places a higher premium on depraved cultural norms than human life.
Transgenders or Khawajasaras are shunned by their parents as soon as the latter discover their child is one. Left at the mercy of an unforgiving society, transgenders soon discover that they are nothing more than objects of ridicule, to the extent that the word hijra (transgender) itself has become one of the many words in our arsenal of verbal abuse.
Thus, with no home for shelter, no family for support and no friends to offer solace, the instinct of survival forces transgenders into adopting professions beneath human dignity.
Most of them are sex workers. They are also hired as dancers on weddings. And this not only makes them objects of amusement, but also of violence. Incidents of sexual abuse and violence against the transgender community are commonplace in Pakistan. Most of these go unmentioned in the media and uninvestigated by the police. Last year, the Secretary of the Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan informed the Supreme Court that 500 transgenders had been killed in the country since 2015. A few months ago, a transgender woman was reportedly shot dead in her home and her body mutilated with an axe.
But perhaps the bigger culprit is not the perpetrators of these heinous crimes but the mindset that condones social exclusion of the transgender community.
In Pakistan, the idea of a normal life for transgenders– a life similar to that of ordinary men and women– is unthinkable. Many people would rather not bear the sight of a transgender worshipping at mosques, working in offices and studying alongside their kids at schools. These misconceived attitudes are further reinforced by TV programmes that ridicule the transgendered by portraying them in a highly derogatory manner. Such stigmatization has condemned the transgendered to a life of contempt and shame.
Yet, this should not be an excuse for hopelessness. Rather it should be a cause for contemplation, as well as a reason for motivation to redress the injustices that society has meted out to the transgender community.
In recent years some encouraging developments have also taken place.
Last year the National Assembly passed the landmark law titled, “Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018”. This law not only upheld the basic human rights of the transgendered such as the right to education, employment, vote, hold public office but also affirmed their right to inheritance. The first ever school for the transgendered was also opened in Lahore last year. The Supreme Court has also ordered NADRA to issue CNICs to members of the transgender community. These measures are indeed quite commendable.
Stigmatization has condemned the transgendered to a life of contempt and shame
However, despite a few steps in the right direction, the miseries of the community cannot be alleviated without the support of the civil society.
Perhaps, a good beginning can be made by educating the society to honor its duty toward this marginalized group.
Social acceptance for the transgendered needs to be inculcated to children at schools and colleges. They must be taught to embrace the transgendered as one of their own; certainly not as an anomaly to be disposed of. Ensuring every transgender is provided education alongside other boys and girls is also indispensable to mainstreaming this community. In fact, allowing the transgendered easy access to schools and colleges would yield two major dividends.
One, it will provide an opportunity to this neglected community to raise their own living standards through respectable professions. Special emphasis should also be placed on vocational training that would increase the job prospects of the transgendered and lure them away from such professions as prostitution.
Two, the national economy shall benefit through social capital in the form of educated transgenders. Pakistan already suffers from the dearth of an educated human resource. According to the Population and Housing Census, the transgender population in Pakistan exceeds 10,000. This is a vast human resource that should not be left untapped. It is in the interest of the state to provide education to the transgendered and turn them into useful citizens of the state. Additionally, it will help remove many of the stigmas attached with the transgender community by facilitating increased social interaction and cohesion.
Finally, the transgender community itself has to spearhead the fight for its rights. It has to lead the struggle toward a better and brighter future for itself.
The death of Alisha and the strong reaction from the civil society that it generated had raised hopes of a better future. It is time to translate those hopes into reality.