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No Respite for Transgender People in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

In conversation with activist Qamar Naseem about the experiences of transgender people in a community that is both entertained and repulsed by them.

File photo of a transgender rights rally in Pakistan. Credit: Reuters

File photo of a transgender rights rally in Pakistan. Credit: Reuters

In May 2016, Alisha, a transwoman from Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, was shot. She was taken to Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar and transported from the male ward to the female ward and back to the male ward multiple times. Patients who were unwell enough to have to be admitted to the hospital were all-too-conscious of Alisha’s presence in the wards. She’s not male, cried the male patients. She’s not female, cried the female patients. Neither gender accepted her into their quarter. She was finally allowed to rest outside the washroom in the male ward for a few hours that night, only to be sent away by early morning. It would be several hours until someone would attend to her. She lay in the hallway of the hospital, bleeding from the bullet wounds. Eventually she succumbed to her injuries and died. The recent post mortem report has revealed that she was shot at nine times, after being raped and filmed. This week, another transwoman, Kashi, was shot multiple times. Her crime was refusing sex.

Farzana, transwoman and president of Trans Action Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, an alliance of approximately 40,000-45,000 activists working to improve the conditions of the transgender people in the province, was with Alisha in the hospital. She told me, “Both Alisha and Kashi were harassed, blackmailed and abused before being shot. When Alisha was shot, people on the road stood around to watch the tamasha. At the hospital the situation was no different. The doctors, the administration, the patients, all laughed at us. She was bleeding to death and we couldn’t get an x-ray, an ultrasound in peace. People were taking pictures of us, harassing us. They eventually put her in a ward for regular patients on a stretcher, even though she was critical. When I asked the nurse for a bed, she told me, ‘you are not human… you are not even worth humanity, let alone a bed…take the patient and go sit in the hallway’. That’s what we did. There too, people came and mocked us, telling us we couldn’t stay there. They said ‘these wards are for VIPs, not people like you’.  Even animals are treated better than we were,” Farzana finished.

According to her, there are about 30-35 men present in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa who are operating in the form of a gang, harassing transgender people and even killing them. “I cannot name them but they force themselves onto us transgender people as partners and then blackmail us when we try to get out of the relationship. Kashi was attacked in her home by these men too. They think what will these transgender people do. We can blackmail them for as much money as we like.” Farzana was released on bail just yesterday after being charged with false allegations. She got into trouble after she started protesting against such incidents and holding the police in the area accountable for their inaction, as well as pointing towards the abuse present against transgender people within police circles.

Qamar Naseem. Credit: Twitter/Qamar Naseem

Qamar Naseem. Credit: Twitter/Qamar Naseem

After hearing about the recent attacks, I reached out to Trans Action and scheduled an interview with Qamar Naseem, who serves on the advisory council of the alliance. Naseem introduced me to Farzana after we engaged in a detailed interview about the latest incidents. My conversation with Naseem gave insights into the backdrop to the violence on transgender people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, giving a glimpse into the provincial landscape in which the community finds an audience that is both entertained and repulsed by its characteristics.

Can you walk me through the recent attacks on Alisha and Kashi?

Alisha and Kashi were good friends. For something like to happen to both of them within 19 days of each other is…I don’t have the words for it. These are just two cases that the media has highlighted. Since January 2015, 46 transgender people have been killed while another 300 have been subjected to violence in the shape of rape, abduction, beatings and forced pornography in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) alone.

Who is responsible for the majority of these attacks?

It is not as if there is a violent gang on one side and the transgender community is standing on the other side. Most of these atrocities take place at the hands of their boyfriends or partners. In Pushto, the word marakh is used for husband. Similarly, almost all transgender people, both transwomen and transmen have a marakh, a permanent sexual partner although obviously there is no nikah. To have a marakh is considered a status symbol for the transgender people, just as being married is for a woman. The social standing of the marakh, the looks, the wealth, are all matters of pride and competition within the transgender community. Usually the marakh has a wife and family, many of whom are aware of his relationship with the transgender person. Quite a few of them belong to the lower class or lower middle class although some come from more affluent backgrounds as well.

Are transgender people preferred over heterosexual sex workers?

Transgender people are more accessible than sex workers as sex work is illegal in Pakistan. Society in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is even more closed off in terms of gender segregation. The wives of these marakhs also prefer their husband being with a transwoman or transman rather than another female; they don’t have to fear him bearing children or getting remarried. In most cases, the transgender partner earns and feeds the marakh. Over time, however, the men become possessive over their partners and start imposing restrictions. They tell them not go out, not to meet so and so person, not to dance. Often they become abusive – physically, sexually and emotionally.

How do transgender people react to such abuse?

Sometimes, transgender people, especially transwomen, bear the violence because it reinforces the gender stereotype of women in our society. Overtime however, from being a sex partner they often begin to transform into a sex slave and want to get out of the relationship. That is usually when the blackmail starts. The marakh says, if you leave, you must give me Rs 50 lac, Rs 60 lac. They beat them, strip them, rape them, make videos and at times kill them in the process.

Did something similar happen to Alisha and Kashi?

Yes. Alisha was also being blackmailed for Rs 50 lac. She had hit one of the men who came to abuse her and he recently told the police he couldn’t bear that a transgender person raised a hand on him. How dare she? He shot her to teach her a lesson.

A popular stereotype in Pakistani society revolves around homosexuality in the Pakhtun culture. How does that play into these sexual relationships between men and transgender people in the province?

Even in Pukhtun poetry the mehboob (lover) is always a man. It isn’t a new phenomenon here. Homosexuality exists in all societies but I feel that in our society, homosexuality or at least bisexuality is even more prevalent because of rigid gender segregation. Even inside most of the homes there is segregation. Men only go home to sleep and even then the women, the chachis, phuphos, bhabis, have to do purdah as they live in joint family systems. There is sexual frustration, in both men and in women. We can deny it as much as we want to but increasingly, we are witnessing cases of violence against lesbians as well. Girls who live inside hostels are particularly vulnerable. Transgender people are the most at risk however. They go to weddings, to parties and offer sex. They charge anywhere from Rs 500 to Rs 10,000…even up to Rs 50,000. The man who pays then says, ‘I gave you 10,000 rupees, you must sleep with me but also my five friends’. When she refuses, she is abused, raped, forced into sexual acts. There are about 7-9 such cases every week but the police refuse to file a report. We have underestimated figures because in most cases complaints are too difficult to register and we have no proof. President of Trans Action, Ms. Farzana was also arrested because she was trying to highlight some of these issues. They charged her with false allegations. We just managed to get her out on bail. We have too many issues to address…there simply aren’t enough people to handle all these problems.”

Another source, on the condition of anonymity shares:

One SHO from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gul Hameed, would keep asking for a new transgender person everyday. Eventually they refused to go. He then forced all of them to come to him, stripped them naked and beat them up with a pipe, later inserting it in their anus. At another police station in Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a transwoman was forced to take off her shirt and imprisoned alongside male prisoners where she was raped. Later the police held her feet for forgiveness so that she wouldn’t file a complaint. She succumbed to the pressure.   

In 2012, the government began to issue National Identification Cards to transgender people. Has that had any positive impact on the community?

The policy was more of a lollipop…a pacifier. While getting the ID card, one has to assert whether they are a transgender male or a transgender female. There are many who do not fit into either category. What about them? And even if they ascribe to the categories, when they try to get married, they are told that they cannot because they belong to the same sex.

The transgender community in Pakistan bears a dual status in society. On one end they are seen as omnipotent, containing special powers. No one wants to be cursed by a transgender person. And on the other hand, they are ridiculed, mocked and derided. Facing abuse within families, at educational institutions and later on the streets of Pakistan leaves them in a precarious condition all over the country. Is the situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA different from other parts of Pakistan?

Crimes in the name of honour are much more common in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa. There are also many internally displaced transgender people in the region. They were one of the first people to get displaced from FATA after the conflict intensified there. Many others have been displaced due to floods and earthquakes. They have no safety net, no social protection, as most of their families have already abandoned them. The growing radicalisation over the years has impacted them severely as well. I have a picture of my grandmother wearing bell-bottom jeans, standing next to the Khyber Pass. My mother tells me how she used to bunk school and go out with her girlfriends to eat kebabs. In our wildest imagination we cannot imagine a woman roaming about in Khyber Agency today…In Pathan culture, we love music but we hate the musician. We also love transgender people till they keep performing for us. But once the performance stops, people become violent. Over the years, entertainment has become criminalised in our area but for me this is hypocrisy too. People say transgender people are impure, that they spread indecency. Do you know that there is a cinema in Peshawar, Shama Cinema that plays four porn movies per day? Even English porn movies are shown with Pushto subtitles. It is always packed. Boys as young as 11 years old go there every day. In other cinemas, old Indian and Pakistani movies are played. In between there is a twenty-minute interval in which they show porn. That’s what the audience buys the ticket for. What kind of society, what kind of decency are we talking about?”

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Postscript: Just this week, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government announced that they would allocate Rs 200 million to the transgender community, most likely as a reaction to the social condemnation that followed the recent incidents. However, according to many activists this is a hollow promise as the budget they have been provided with makes no mention of this allocation. “It is just a reference to a policy action…nothing has been allocated as yet. In fact, until 9-10 pm Friday night PTI (Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf party) members were trying to convince us not to raise the topic. They are under pressure to not use the term transgender by their coalition partner Jamaat-e-Islami. They want to call it ‘vulnerable population’. If they can’t use the word, do you think they can implement action?” a male representative, who fights for the rights of transgender people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, asked me. I was glad he did not wait for an answer for I wasn’t sure I had one.

Anam Zakaria is the author of Footprints of Partition: Narratives of four generations of Pakistanis and Indians (HarperCollins 2015)