In Pakistan, Transgender Women Who Reject Men’s Advances Often Face Violence

An organized network of men, who pursue and harass transgender women, sent 200 threatening messages to Paras, a transgender dancer.
August 12, 2021, 12:40pm
transgender, beelas, pakistan, violence, LGBTQ
Transgender woman Paras has received dozens of video and audio messages threatening violence against her for rejecting the advances of a man. Photo courtesy: Paras

In a room wallpapered with pink paper hearts, a transgender woman sits on a leather couch with a man’s feet in her hands. She begs for the man’s forgiveness for turning him down. She is being filmed by one of the man’s four friends. He says that if she ever insults him again, an apology will not be enough. 

Five months ago, Paras, the woman in the video who is based in Pakistan’s coastal city of Karachi, started receiving dozens of threatening video and audio messages for refusing the relationship advances of the man. Activists believe that the threats against the transgender dancer, who prefers to be identified only by her first name for her safety and protection, are organised by the Beelas, a term used by the transgender community for men who perpetrate violence against them for rejecting their coercive sexual behaviors. 

Beelas are predominantly ex-lovers or intimate partners of transgender people who seek revenge after being denied sexual or romantic consent. They often attend dance performances and make sexual advances on transgender women. Rejections are met with violent retaliation.  

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“People have shared videos threatening my life. They say, ‘Cut off all her hair and throw acid on her.’ They say things like ‘Shoot her in the leg so that she cannot perform at functions or do anything else,’” Paras told VICE World News. 

transgender, beelas, pakistan, violence, LGBTQ

Violence against transgender women often includes the act of hair cutting to degrade and humiliate victims. Photo: Arif ALI / AFP

The alleged harasser’s supporters have repeatedly shown up outside Paras’ house and banged on her door, demanding entry. She says that they also kept watch outside her house and threatened to abduct her if she left.  The group’s organized social media campaign called for the assault and humiliation of Paras, with demands for her to apologize to the perpetrator.

“People have shared videos threatening my life. They say, ‘Cut off all her hair and throw acid on her’, or ‘Shoot her in the leg so that she cannot perform at functions or do anything else,’” said Paras.

One of the videos inciting violence against Paras and the transgender community viewed by VICE World News shows an unidentified man saying, “We are not scared of the police. We are not scared of the court or of any politician.” In another video, a man demands that Paras apologize so that other men who attend dance performances are not humiliated.

The videos have made the rounds of Pakistani Whatsapp groups and also crossed borders. Paras received a video believed to have originated from a Nepalese airport in which a man declares that she isn’t allowed entry into Nepal unless she apologizes. 

Paras said the perpetrator had been attending her dance performances at weddings and social gatherings for a year. Over time, he grew increasingly aggressive in his attempts to engage her in a relationship. When she began to actively distance herself from him, she was repeatedly barred from performing at events in Karachi. Shortly after, she began to receive threatening messages. Out of fear, some members of the local transgender community started cutting ties with Paras. 

Beelas are predominantly ex-lovers or intimate partners of transgender people who seek revenge after being denied sexual or romantic consent.

The escalation of threats and restrictions on Paras’ movements ultimately led to her apologizing to the accused and his supporters by bowing down in front of them as seen on the video. Despite her apology, she has continued to receive threats from other men. 

Shahzadi Rai, who works as the violence case manager at the Gender Interactive Alliance and who has helped register the police complaints against the accused, has also started receiving in-person and phone call threats. 

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“As I was directly dealing with this case, I am now also in trouble,” said Rai. “They say that because I have registered police complaints for previous cases, that either I should leave my job or I will have to face them.”

transgender, beelas, pakistan, violence, LGBTQ

Paras filed a police complaint (left) against the accused for trespassing, theft, and criminal intimidation. The perpetrator broke into her house, threatened her, and stole her phone. On right is a second police complaint. Personal details of the victim and the assailant have been redacted from the police report to protect the victim's safety. 

In March, Paras registered a police complaint against the perpetrator for trespassing into her house, stealing her phone, and criminal intimidation. After a court settlement and a brief cessation of threats, the campaign against Paras continued. 

In July, police launched an ongoing investigation of the messages she received following public condemnation by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). The commission condemned the threats and urged the government to take action.  

A police official from Karachi, who is not authorised to speak to media, told VICE World News on condition of anonymity that they believe that Paras’ phone number was shared among the perpetrator’s friends and acquaintances, after which she started receiving the messages. 

According to news reports, the video and audio messages originate from various parts of Karachi. The accused was arrested and charged with criminal intimidation, trespassing and disturbing the peace. He was later released on bail, police said.

According to Rai, Beelas have intricate networks that span Pakistan’s provinces. They include a wide spectrum of ethnic and socio-economic groups – gangsters, migrants, vegetable sellers, elites.

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“In every area of Pakistan, Beelas are present,” said Reem Sharif, a victim support representative from the transgender reporting and protection department of the Rawalpindi police. “They go around acting like a transgender person’s husband or boyfriend and end up killing or harming them.”

Beelas have intricate networks that span Pakistan’s provinces. They include a wide spectrum of ethnic and socio-economic groups – gangsters, migrants, vegetable sellers, elites.

Rai says Paras’ harasser is part of a Beela network in Karachi of approximately 1,000 men who arrange for transgender dance performances. Hair chopping or shaving is their pervasive form of abuse. 

Instances of torture against transgender women are often accompanied by the act of hair cropping to degrade and humiliate victims. Earlier this year, transgender model Rimal Ali’s head was shaved during a vicious assault. “This is very common. It happens almost every other day,” said Rana. “The hair of a transgender woman is very important. It is like clipping the wings of a bird.” 

“Mostly it depends on the moods of the men who have relationships with the community or are their clients,” said Kaleem Durrani, HRCP’s Karachi Coordinator. “If [transgender people] refuse to meet them out of fear of violence or sexual assault [which can involve multiple assailants], they threaten them. They say, ‘We will tell others and spread the issue everywhere,’ or that ‘We will abduct you.’” 

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Sharif says Beelas do not believe that the transgender community have a right to consent over their own bodies. “Being a Beela is a mindset. They are anyone who considers a trans person their property, or who consider trans people as less than human,” said Sharif. “They resort to violence and cruelty to repress any form of self-expression by a trans person.” 

According to activists, despite the diversity of their backgrounds, Beelas hold a common contempt for judicial repercussions, believing themselves to be above the law. They said perpetrators often wield considerable legal and political influence and easily make bail when cases are registered against them.

“Who has ever received justice? Murdering someone and getting bail is part of the culture in Pakistan. Money talks. Poor people who don’t have money cannot receive justice,” said transgender rights activist Zehrish Khanzadi. 

Widespread violence against the transgender or the khawaja sira community in Pakistan persists despite the landmark passing of its transgender rights protection law in 2018. The law guarantees basic civil rights to transgender citizens such as gender self-identification and workplace protections against harassment and discrimination. 

“Who has ever received justice? Murdering someone and getting bail is part of the culture in Pakistan. Money talks. Poor people who don’t have money cannot receive justice,” said transgender rights activist Zehrish Khanzadi.

However, according to Human Rights Watch, Pakistan’s criminalization of homosexuality leaves transgender persons subject to rampant police abuse, violence and prejudice.  Transphobic home and workplace environments drastically narrow the livelihood prospects of the trans community. Many have to resort to sex work, begging in the streets, and dancing to sustain themselves despite constant threats to their safety.  

“The federal government started the legislation process for us in 2018. There are many provisions in the bill for transgender people, which are very good but it eventually comes down to implementation,” said Bindiya Rana, transgender rights activist and founder of the Gender Interactive Alliance. 

Local activists reported the murders of around 65 transgender women in the country’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province from 2015 to 2019. Last April, a 60-year-old transgender person was shot and killed by unidentified assailants who barged into their home in Karachi’s Korangi district. In 2021, a total of 37 assault cases against transgender people were registered, including four murders in Karachi. 

“The rules have been made but there is no action on it,” Rana added. “Which is why it is of no use.”

Follow Rimal Farrukh on Twitter.