Trans community in Pakistan stages first-ever rights march

The march was organised by the Khwaja Sira, an indigenous community of trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming individuals in Pakistan.

A march organised by the trans community in Pakistan, with activists speaking on a stage.
Image: Via Twitter - @sunduncexx

On Sunday, November 20, members of the Khwaja Sira community, which encompasses trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming individuals, came together in the city of Karachi for the first-ever march of its kind in Pakistan, demanding equality and protection against hate speech.

Contrary to the widespread misconception that being trans is a Western idea imposed on other parts of the world, the Khwaja Sira community has a long history in Pakistan, dating back to the Mughal Empire of the 16th to 19th centuries. The community held a special place within the empire, they were trusted and respected, often holding positions of power and advisory roles.

However, they lost their status when the British East India Company colonised the Indian subcontinent and introduced the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871, which criminalised the existence of their community and contributed to their ostracisation. Discrimination and stigmatisation against the Khwaja Sira community, often also referred to as “third gender”, continued for the years to come and today they still face widespread marginalisation.

On Sunday, hundreds of people participated in the first Sindh Moorat (the indigenous term for trans) march to ever happen in Pakistan. Organised by the Gender Interactive Alliance (GIA), the march took place on Transgender Day of Remembrance, to commemorate the lives lost to anti-trans violence.

The Khwaja Sira community has faced growing violence in the last few years, which saw an increase in the number of hate crimes. As reported by Pakistan’s Trans-Action Alliance, 91 trans women have been murdered in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province since 2015 and more than 2,000 cases of violence against the community were registered.

Moreover, they have recently had to face challenges to the victories that their movement managed to achieve in the past. In 2018, Pakistan passed the Transgender Persons Act, which gave the community the right to vote and self-determine their gender on official identity documents. Considered by some to be one of the most progressive trans rights bills in the world, the law recently came under threat when religious conservative political parties argued that it was “against Sharia” and the Council of Islamic Ideology issued a statement saying that it could be reversed.

Hina Baloch, one of the organisers of the march, said: “For decades, we were denied basic rights and now whatever rights that have been given are being snatched. On top of this, a media trial and disinformation campaign has been running in the country against us, resulting in more violence.”

Baloch also revealed how many of the organisers, as well as other trans activists, received threats to be “killed, with knives, bullets as well as threats of acid attacks and rape” due to their advocacy work.

Activist Arma Khan said: “We deserve to be treated equally and with respect but this must start from our families. A lot of the transgender community is persecuted. This must stop, society and the families should support their children”.

According to the statistics, the stigma and marginalisation faced by the Pakistani trans community leads to 42% of them being illiterate, and the lack of education forces them to resort to begging, sex work and dancing.

Elif Khan, a dancer who also joined the march, spoke up saying: “This is the first time that we are having such a march exclusively for our community – this fills me with pride. I am a dancer but I want to progress now, I want to get an education, I want to make an identity for myself”.

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