by Syed Kasim Masood, Business & Human Rights Reporting Consultant , Decentralization, Human Rights and Local Governance (DHL), UNDP Pakistan
We are the Change!
May 17, 2023
Living as a trans-person is constantly claiming spaces from the whirlwinds – a struggle that most people think as hopeless. However, there are riveting accounts of courage, faith, and ceaseless resilience. Here are the very personal stories shared by three trans-high achievers.
The passage of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act in 2018 was seen as a watershed moment in Pakistan. It recognized that like all other citizens of Pakistan, transgender persons should also have the same fundamental rights. However, while the passage of the Act has codified the right to formal equality, the struggle for substantive equality still continues. Meanwhile, the transgender community in Pakistan continues to advocate for their rights on multiple fronts, such as advancing their right to work, expanding access to healthcare, and combating transphobia online. At the same time, these transgender rights activists have to come to terms with their own lived experience of facing transphobia and discovering avenues in their life’s journey to overcome transphobia.
One such trans-champion who continues to break barriers is Aisha Mughal. As a trans activist and researcher, Aisha became the world’s first transgender woman to represent Pakistan’s government as part of an official UN delegation in 2020. Currently, she is working as the Director of Programs at Wajood Society, a trans-led organization in Islamabad. Aisha also played a role in the drafting process and passage of the Transgender Persons Act. She had to overcome several obstacles to become a leading voice on trans issues in Pakistan.
For Aisha, transitioning was the most traumatic period in terms of bearing transphobia. From an early age, Aisha faced a great deal of bullying, harassment and discrimination at school, university and in the workplace for not being representative of normalized masculine behaviour. Even though she had tried to conceal her non-binary gender identity initially, she faced discrimination due to embodying characteristics that were perceived to be feminine.
Yet, things took an expected, positive, turn as Aisha chose to declare the end of her transition and her transgender identity. “The transphobia tended to decrease when I came out and disclosed my gender identity publicly back in 2016. During this journey I received moral support from my transgender community and Gurus. Fortunately, some of my university professors were also very supportive”. Aisha points out that prominent trans activists are being targeted personally and harassed. According to her, such abuse is highly damaging to the mental well-being and security of trans voices. “Things were moving in the right direction until 2022 when this anti-trans law movement led by some extremists started in Pakistan. I can feel that this is increasing transphobia in the country.”
“The important lesson I have learnt is to be vocal and determined when it comes to claiming your space and demanding your basic human rights. Being a transgender rights activist, I have realized that it is very important to have an inclusive approach while drafting laws and policies.” Aisha stresses the need to empathize with transgender lived experiences and urges lawmakers to ‘understand the pain and grief’ that stems from transphobia.
Personal trajectories of trans-persons in Pakistan are resounding testimonies of their resilience and unique abilities to transform the dispossession, pain and grief caused by transphobia into remarkable journeys of self-discovery. Reflecting on this process, Abhishey Basharat, a university trans-student from Balochistan remarked, “Very early on I discovered my love for arts, and I channelled my sorrow and solitude to enhance my artistic expression.” She belongs to the Christian community of Quetta and is the first transgender woman to enrol in the Fine Arts department at the reputed Balochistan University of Information Technology and Management Sciences. She holds several key positions in various rights-based initiatives including, being a board member of the Forum for Dignity Initiative, Assistant Coordinator at Crime Victim Services Pakistan, and Central Information Secretary at the Pakistan Federation of Media Council. Her volunteerism specifically focuses on health rights for transgender persons, especially on addressing health issues of transgender persons from the Christian community.
“I experienced dejection and ridicule from a very young age. Peers at school and extended family members would call me by unkind names. Growing up in such an environment, one has to learn to be a survivor.” By embodying such an attitude, Abhishey has not only produced art that is provocative but has also become an active voice for issues faced by the transgender community in Pakistan. “My art focuses on the problems that women face but these issues are espoused in narratives of courage and resilience. I want the world to see women not as weak but as empowered and spirited individuals. A lot of my inspiration comes from my own struggle.”
For Abhishey, making those around her to come to terms with her gender identity was a challenge. “I experienced a lot of mental stress, and I wasn’t aware of any service that could support me at the time. I had to be strong and bit by bit I carved out a space for myself. At the family front, there was a lot of active communication, dialogue and emotions running high around my transition but in the end the family conceded to accept my transition. I must thank my mother, for it was her love and encouragement that gave me the courage to fight my battles, both those at home and those that awaited me in the outside world.” Due to her experience, she stresses the need to develop mechanisms that enhance institutional support for vulnerable communities. In particular, she finds the increased focus on mental health awareness an encouraging development and hopes that more psychosocial and legal support mechanisms can be set up.
An important facet of being cognizant of issues faced by trans communities pertains to cisgender individuals being aware of their own privilege, in order to empathize with those who are denied their fundamental rights. In this regard, Mani AQ, a transgender man based in Lahore, remarks, “We also need to work together to raise awareness of this issue and ensure that those who identify as trans have the same rights and privileges as those who identify as cisgender. We must strive to ensure that everyone can live their lives without fear or discrimination regardless of their gender or expression.”
Mani was the first transgender male to legally get his name and gender changed, even before the passage of the landmark 2018 bill. Moreover, he has played a significant role in the drafting and implementation process of the law. He is the co-founder of HOPE (Have Only Positive Expectations) and works as a Program Executor in the organization. In this capacity, he works on several key issues faced by the trans community, such as providing legal assistance, mental health services and aid in finding dignified employment.
“I have experienced transphobia at various stages of my life. However, greater discrimination and transphobia are encountered in the medical field where staff may be more receptive to people coming in for support and assistance. People like me have stopped themselves from visiting medical professionals to avoid this habit that creates invisible scars on the soul with their judgmental behaviour and statements.” Mani stresses how social stigma creates barriers for trans individuals from accessing essential services and facilities that may be taken for granted by cis-gendered individuals. He also points out that since binary systems are deeply embedded in Pakistan due to society’s culture and values, self-discovery can often be a daunting task that is plagued by discrimination and intimidation. “This experience is shared by many people around the world who do not fit into the traditional binary gender structure so prevalent in our societies today and face various forms of oppression, stigma, and discrimination that can make it difficult for them to create their conduct in truth and security My struggle is no different, my fight for acceptance comes with many challenges including family, friends and society in general.”
Regardless of the challenges that Mani has faced due to his identity, he still exudes a sense of hope when it comes to his own journey. “Discovering your true self is always a challenge at this stage and to overcome the challenge you need to have little patience and hustle. That’s what I’ve learned from all my journey. I have learned to dream, don’t stop myself from dreaming, and put all my efforts into making my dreams come true. Be loud and steady, take your own path without compromising someone else’s goals, and you’ll go beyond your expectations to where you’ve always wanted to go.” It is thus least surprising that Mani has dedicated himself to supporting other vulnerable individuals, guiding them in how best to follow their own dreams and realising them, against pervasive hopelessness, through his work at a civil society organisation, just as fittingly called HOPE.
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