For years, the Christian transgender community in Pakistan didn’t go to church.
Sonia, who prefers to go by her first name, grew up pretending to be Muslim like the other transgender women she lived with. “Instead of Christmas or Easter, I celebrated Eid,” she told VICE World News. “It was safer for me.”
When Sonia was 13, her Christian family sent her to live with a transgender community, a common practice in South Asia for families that don’t want to embrace the trans identity of their child.
The community she was sent to live with was Muslim. Sonia started to live like them, but she missed her Christian rituals. “My family used to decorate a fresh Christmas tree with lights and colorful balls. In the church, I remember being part of the carol singing group and all the children from the Sunday school were given gifts, usually candies,” she said.
After years, Sonia finally got to sing carols again after becoming a member of a chapter of the first transgender church in Pakistan.
“I stayed away from church because of the humiliation that it brought on me,” 29-year-old Pakistani Guriya, who is also a transgender woman, told VICE World News. “We dressed like women but were forced to sit in the men’s aisle.”
Guriya, who also prefers to go by her first name, is now a regular at the transgender-welcoming First Church of Eunuch. Ghazala Shafique, the female pastor and founder of Pakistan’s first church for the transgender community, opened its doors in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi last fall. The church aims to be a safe place for transgender people and eunuchs.
Every Friday evening, Guriya joins about 30 members from the transgender community, locally called hijras, to pray, read the Bible and sing hymns. Guriya believes the church has enabled her to reconnect to God with a sense of community and belonging.
In January, Shafique launched a chapter of the church in Pakistan’s second-largest city Lahore, which Sonia is a member of. Shafique is working to start another chapter in Quetta city in Balochistan province.
“Many of our members got a chance to be part of this sacred ritual for the first time in their lives,” said Shafique, referring to their Easter and Good Friday service.
In 2009, Pakistan recognised transgender as a third gender, paving the way for them to be mainstreamed into society. Despite passing one of the world’s most progressive transgender laws in 2018 - which allows citizens the right to self-identify as male, female or a blend of both genders - Pakistan continues to also enforce colonial laws that criminalise sodomy with life imprisonment, which makes transgender community vulnerable to police abuse and hate crimes.
In its 2021 report, Human Rights Watch noted that religious minorities and trans individuals in Pakistan continued to face violence, discrimination and persecution, with authorities often failing to provide adequate protection or hold perpetrators accountable. Last April, a 15-year-old Christian transgender person was raped and murdered in the city of Faisalabad.
Last year, Shafique, whose husband is also a Christian pastor, was working with transgender Muslims and Christians on COVID-19 relief activities when the conversation steered towards how trans communities in Pakistan are given shelter at Muslim shrines, but turned away from churches.
Shafique had experienced this first hand when she tried visiting a church with a transgender friend, who was considered “unholy” by church staff.
Shafique said she first started a bible study group specifically for the trans community, which gradually took the shape of a church in the backyard of her house. “Our neighbours and relatives questioned me and my husband, who is also a pastor, on why I was bringing transgender people,” Shafique told VICE World News.
The service at First Church of Eunuchs is now livestreamed on Facebook. Pastor Shafique explained that they use the term eunuch in their name instead of transgender because eunuch is used in the bible.
Some believe that separate spaces like the one started by Shafique might exclude the transgender community further. “We are not animals of a zoo that need separate compartments,” Bindiya Rana, a Karachi-based transgender activist, told VICE World News. “Our demand is equality that our children go to the same school where others go, and if there is an opportunity for poor women or widows same should be provided to transgender. There is no benefit in asking separate entities.”
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