Pakistan’s ‘third gender’ seek greater rights

By Elena Becatoros
The Associated Press

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (AP) — Taunted at home, Sanhya ran away at age 12, searching for acceptance — neither male nor female, but a member of a third gender.

Pakistan’s transgender community has long lived on society’s margins, harassed by police, ridiculed as freaks, pitied as the outcast people of Allah, and often rejected by their own families. Now, the Supreme Court is giving them hope through a petition for their rights to be respected.

“People are recognizing that we are also human beings,” said Almas Bobby, who acts as head of the community and fights for equal rights.

A series of hearings by the court over the past 11 months could be the first steps toward bringing them into the mainstream. The court has already suggested to authorities to consider adding a third gender to state-issued identity cards.

The community is known as “khusra,” which Pakistanis translate as “eunuch” in English, though the meaning is broader than a castrated man. Besides transsexuals, it also includes hermaphrodites.

Transgender people in much of the world view themselves as women born in a man’s body, or vice versa. In Pakistan and other south Asian countries, those born male often see themselves as neither sex, though they wear women’s clothing and refer to each other as “she.”

The proposal borrows from the example of neighboring India, whose election commission ruled late last year that transgender people could register to vote as “other,” rather than male or female.

“Our parents feel embarrassed for us to be called khusra,” said Sanhya, who is now 19 and lives with other khusra in Rawalpindi, a city next to the capital, Islamabad. “But we need our identity. It is our right.” Like most in her community, she would only give the female name she adopted.

While Sanhya and Bobby say the situation has improved since the Supreme Court took notice of their plight, their community is still dogged by violence.

Several dozen khusra gathered recently to remember 28-year-old Nadia Malik, whose body was found on a street in Rawalpindi. They said she had been stabbed repeatedly and then run over by a car.

“She was brutally killed,” said Sanaa, a 22-year-old. “We have reported it to the police, but so far, they have found nothing,” she said. She refused to speculate about the killers’ motive.

There are no official figures for khusra, though Bobby estimates that there are several hundred thousand.

Despite the discrimination they suffer, Pakistani Islamic society tolerates them as dancers at festivals and weddings, where men and women are segregated and khusra are seen as bridging the gap. They also earn money blessing newborn babies or begging. Their curses are widely feared and few dare send them away empty-handed. Many work as prostitutes.

“People laugh at them wherever they go,” said Mohammad Aslam Khaki, the lawyer who filed the petition at the Supreme Court in early 2009 in an attempt to stop khusra facing discrimination in employment, health care, housing, and other rights. “Their dignity is violated.”

To tackle police harassment, the court ruled that authorities must send copies of the case files of any khusra arrested. It has also issued orders to guarantee them free health care and their right to inheritances, which are at times denied them by families who have rejected them.

“We are just fighting for our rights,” says Sanhya. “This Pakistan belongs to us also.”  ♦

AP writer Muneeza Naqvi contributed to this report.

One Response to “Pakistan’s ‘third gender’ seek greater rights”

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