Pakistan is considering amending a landmark transgender rights bill passed in 2018 that some legislators and clerics argue contradicts Islamic teachings on gender identity.
Rights activists, however, say the law is being misunderstood and the “misinformed” debate against it is further endangering the transgender community.
Hailed as among the more progressive laws on transgender rights globally by the International Commission of Jurists, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act gave transgender people in Pakistan the right to choose their gender identity as they perceived it themselves and to change it on previously issued government documents.
Opponents of the law claim the provision to choose or change one’s gender is un-Islamic and could open the door to same-sex marriage, currently prohibited in Pakistan.
In the last two weeks, at least four trans women have been killed. Some trans-rights activists blame lumping “transgender” together with “homosexuality” for the renewed targeting of their community. Homosexuality is a punishable offense in Pakistan.
Hashtags such as “amend trans act” and “take back the vulgar bill” were recently trending on Twitter.
Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan, a member of the conservative political party Jamat-e-Islami, is leading the charge against the 2018 law. He told VOA that allowing citizens to choose self-perceived gender identity presents a “danger to the family and inheritance systems,” as it will “open the door for 220 million people to choose to be anything.”
Pakistan uses the Islamic system of inheritance, which divides assets among descendants based on their gender. Men get twice as much as women. The act stipulated that a person identifying as a trans man would also get twice as much as a trans woman.
Pakistan’s 2018 law defines transgender as anyone with a mixture of male and female genital features or ambiguous genitalia, a person assigned male at birth but who has undergone castration, or any person whose gender identity or expression differ from their assigned sex at birth.
Khan told VOA he does not believe “fully male” or “fully female” persons should be given the right to choose their gender if their gender perception does not match their physical or sexual anatomy. Instead, “they should seek psychological help,” he said.
He said the law should only encompass those who cannot be categorized as male or female at birth based on their sexual or reproductive anatomy.
His proposed amendments to the 2018 law include establishing medical boards that conduct detailed exams and then advise what gender a person should be.
Transgender rights activists oppose examination by a medical board to determine sexual and gender identity. Speaking to VOA, activist Zanaya Chaudhry asked that since a medical exam is not required to determine a man or a woman’s gender identity, “why is this discriminatory act being forced upon transgender people?”
According to Chaudhry, the purpose of the 2018 legislation was only to protect the rights of transgender people, whom she said, “were finally being accepted as human beings.”
Harassment, death threats
Abandoned by families and relegated to mostly begging, dancing or sex work due to social stigma, transgender people in Pakistan routinely suffer harassment and many face death threats and fatal attacks.
According to data collected by the International Commission of Jurists and its partner organizations, at least 20 transgender people were killed in Pakistan in 2021.
Only a decade ago, in 2012, the country’s top court ruled that transgender people have the same rights as all other citizens and ordered that a “third gender” category be added to national identity cards.
That ruling paved the way for the 2018 legislation, which expressly prohibited discrimination against transgender people in educational institutions, workplaces and health care, and it guaranteed them a share in inheritance.
Human rights activist and lawyer Hina Jilani rejects the notion the 2018 law is against Islam. She told VOA it’s perplexing that “a law that gave identity to a marginalized community and was passed by the parliament is being objected to now.”
Some transgender rights activists, however, are also dissatisfied with the language of the 2018 law.
Speaking to VOA, transgender rights activist Almas Bobby lamented that the trans community is still heavily stigmatized and unable to avail basic rights. Bobby contended the number of “real” transgender people in Pakistan is quite small and that this law protects those “who want to change their sex only because of a personal preference.”
Like Khan, Bobby also believes that only those with ambiguous genitalia should be called transgender.
This week, Fawzia Arshad, a senator from one of the most popular political parties, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), also introduced a new bill to replace the 2018 legislation.
The proposals by senators Khan and Arshad focus on only protecting those with genital ambiguities and removing the clauses that allow a transgender person to choose their gender identity as they perceive it and spell their share in family inheritance.
The Senate chairman has forwarded the matter to the relevant standing committee for review.
The country’s religious court, known as Federal Shariat Court, is also reviewing arguments in favor of and against the 2018 law.
Earlier, the Council on Islamic Ideology, a constitutional body that reviews Pakistan’s laws in the light of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings, also declared the 2018 law un-Islamic for allowing one to choose self-perceived gender and gender reassignment.
While Pakistan’s law minister, Azam Nazir Tarar, has rejected the criticism of the law being un-Islamic as “baseless propaganda,” he has welcomed Khan’s proposed amendments, telling a press conference the word of the religious court will now be final.
In 2018, the transgender rights legislation passed with the support of all major political parties, although it was rejected by religious parties, including Khan’s Jamat-e-Islami.
In 2021, when Khan first raised the issue to amend the law, Shireen Mazari, then the human rights minister from the ruling party PTI, opposed the move.
Why is the issue now gaining traction? Khan said his consistent work on this matter is finally paying off.
Reporter Kashif Awan with VOA’s Urdu service also contributed to this story.