Pakistan’s progressive transgender laws are currently under attack. As legislators and clerics oppose the country’s Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act four years after it was passed, one senator wants to change how the measure defines transgender persons. Fawzia Arshad, a senator from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) says transgender people should be defined as those who “keep one hole for urination.”
Arshad’s bill reflects a trend of escalating dissent and misinformation campaigns against the country’s transgender laws, in an effort to bring it in line with their understanding of Islamic teachings on gender and sex. While Arshad’s awkwardly-worded proposal has bemused many, making some wonder if she knows the difference between a vagina and a urethra, there’s also a larger concern over the direction this movement is taking.
“Fawzia Arshad’s proposal reflects how much these politicians don’t know about our communities. Who are they to talk about our rights?” Shahzadi Rai, a prominent transgender rights activist who is the case manager at Gender Interactive Alliance, told VICE World News. “They’re trying to snatch our constitutional empowerment, even after this law was created with everyone’s agreements.”
The International Commission of Jurists had called the 2018 law a “meaningful legislative change” in a country plagued by chronic violence against Pakistan’s transgender communities. The 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 anyone whose gender identity or expression differs from their assigned sex at birth.
Opponents of the law, including Arshad, fear that it could potentially give legal protection to homosexuality. Homosexuality is criminalised in Pakistan, which, according to Human Rights Watch, already leaves transgender persons subject to rampant police abuse, violence and prejudice. At least four transgender persons were killed in the country in just the last few days, according to the National Commission for Human Rights.
Online hashtags such as #AmendTransAct and “take back the vulgar bill” are trending in Pakistan. Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan, a member of the conservative political party Jamat-e-Islami, who is leading the charge, told Voice of America 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.”
Activists are also sounding the alarm over the ongoing political campaign that’s fuelling more transphobia and hate against transgender people.
Rai said that they themselves saw a spike in hate comments and trolling on their social media, such as their photos being circulated without their permission.
“Not just online – the hate has spilled out on the streets too,” they said. “Every day, we’re receiving thousands of complaints. Some are being stopped on the streets and asked whether they’re really transgender.”
The community is fighting back through press conferences and a protest march. “We will not let them take away our rights. We will fight back,” said Rai.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.