As Pakistan gears up for the January 2024 general elections, many transgender people in Pakistan are facing a renewed identity crisis. In May this year, the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) cancelled three sections of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018 and stopped implementing the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Rules, 2020, according to a notification published by the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA).
The court barred transgender people from changing their gender assigned at birth, emphasised that inheritance should align with a person’s biological sex, and banned people from identifying as khawaja sira (hijra) if they deviate from their sex assigned at birth. Hijras have historically been an accepted third gender in many South Asian countries and have been an important cultural demographic for centuries.
This verdict also stopped transgender people from being correctly identified in state documents, as they could previously register under the X category while males and females were represented by the symbols M and F. This means some of them may not receive national ID cards and hence will be unable to vote in the upcoming elections. According to the FSC, these cancelled sections do not conform with their interpretation of Islamic principles.
After protests from civil society, human rights activists, NGOs and transgender activists, and a lawsuit challenging the verdict in July 2023, the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) resumed registering transgender people for national IDs on September 25, 2023. People cannot vote without their biometric national ID, which is also needed for other services such as SIM cards, opening bank accounts, vehicle registrations, and more. However, the ordeal shows that the struggle towards social equity and human rights for transgender people in Pakistan is far from over.
The transgender community was included in the national census for the first time in 2017, with 10,418 people counted in a population of approximately 207 million, which many criticised as being misleadingly low. According to the advocacy group Trans Action Pakistan, there are at least 500,000 transgender people in the country.
The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act of 2018
The historic Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act was passed by Pakistan's National Assembly in 2018. The government began registering transgender people in national records under the X category under the 2018 law.
However, in 2022, the law was met with opposition from Islamic scholars and right-wing political parties. In September 2022, the Federal court allowed a petition challenging the legislation, claiming that it conflicted with Islamic principles. Consequently, in May 2023, the court struck down the law and declared that three sections of the act violate Sharia law.
In a telephone interview with Global Voices, Nayyab Ali, Director of Transgender Rights Consultants Pakistan, stated that they have also filed an appeal at the Supreme Court of Pakistan against the court verdict and that a hearing on the matter will be held soon.
“Right now, our biggest concern is whether our identity cards will have the correct gender marker. If so, how can we exercise one of the fundamental rights for which we have worked so hard?” asks Sheema Kermani of the rights group Tehreek-e-Niswaan. Due to delays within the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) tasked with revisions, over 90 percent of those polled by her NGO still have their birth names on their national IDs. If their documents do not match their gender presentation, transgender voters may be turned away at numerous polling places.
A life intensified by threats and challenges
Transgender people in Pakistan have long experienced severe societal stigma and persecution. They are frequently subjected to assault, harassment, and social exclusion. Despite the government's positive measures to recognise transgender rights, such as the right to free education in Lahore and inclusion in the national health Card program, implementation remains a struggle. Discrimination and misinformation remain.
Because their identity cards did not match their gender presentation, no transgender people were allowed to vote in the 2018 general elections in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province — the site of several attacks against transgender people in 2016. Although 13 transgender candidates contested this discrimination in the 2018 general elections, many of their voters and supporters were barred from reaching the polling stations.
“The Election Commission's refusal to acknowledge our identity is a blatant violation of our rights as citizens,” says activist and transgender rights champion Alisha to Global Voices via phone.
Aside from identification concerns, physical and verbal harassment are still prevalent, particularly in traditional rural Pakistan. According to a poll of 400 people conducted in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province last year by the advocacy organisation Blue Veins, more than 90 percent of gender nonconforming people suffer ongoing prejudice in their everyday lives, from finding jobs to accessing public services and spaces. Furthermore, widespread economic deprivation forces the bulk of the transgender population to rely on begging or sex labour to live during times of political unrest.
Politicians have also ignored this marginalised community over the years. Despite repeated assurances, even major liberal parties succumbed to enormous pressure and nudging to give them minority seats. During the tenure of former Prime Minister Imran Khan (2018–2022), a five-member panel was established to protect transgender rights in 2020. However, it lacked real authority and lost traction when he was toppled in the 2022 April no-confidence vote on accusations of mismanaging the economy.
The National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) and Election Commission of Pakistan’s act of halting the registration of identity of the transgender community was a blatant act that not only violated the fundamental rights of the transgender population but also fostered cultural stereotypes. These acts fostered the perception that transgender people are less deserving of respect and dignity by refusing to recognise their gender identification. This discriminatory viewpoint has far-reaching implications, weakening the community's self-esteem and making it difficult for them to fully participate in public life.
Rabiya Javeri Agha, the Chairperson of the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) in Pakistan, posted on X (formerly Twitter):
Provision of a number of rights is linked to having a valid cnic. Without cnics the trans community had no access to numerous rights as citizens of this country. Kudos to @NadraPak for prompt revision of their earlier decision. @reema_omer https://t.co/Xm1qLp90R5
— Rabiya Javeri Agha (@RabiyaJaveri) September 25, 2023
The Pakistani transgender community is a hardy and resourceful collection of people. They have overcome numerous obstacles throughout the years, but they have never given up hope.
The upcoming elections provide an important chance for the transgender community to make their views heard and seek the rights and protections they are entitled to. The matter is still in the apex court, and the community awaits the verdict on whether the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018 can survive in the future.