Becoming Reem: A Journey of Exploration and Self-discovery
December 1, 2022
“As a transgender woman, today, when I look back at my journey of self-exploration, I am reminded of the multitude of challenges that I faced along the way. Yet, now, I say this with gratitude and humility that I am glad I persevered to stay true to myself and faced the world with undeterred commitment and resilience.”
Since early childhood, Reem knew she was different. Born to a family of loving parents in Faisalabad, Reem Sharif was named Muhammad Asim Sharif when she was born. At birth a gender was ascribed to her which was based on the restrictive and non-inclusive practised norms of her society. “In our society, there is a severe lack of understanding regarding the difference between gender and sex. Hence there are many misconceptions around the term transgender. Although I was being raised as a boy, I knew I felt different’. Reem reminisces how she would secretly wear her sister’s clothes, looking at herself in the mirror, she would marvel at the person looking back. In retrospect she thinks that this was in fact one of the foundational moments at the beginning of her long journey towards self-discovery. Her journey was never void of challenges. With time she was made to feel as an outsider, as someone who did not fit in with the rest. The discrimination that she experienced from her peers at school led her to isolate herself from company and focus, solely, on herself. However she also remembers, with gratitude, the support and encouragement she received from her teachers, due to her excellent grades. Her hard work was rewarded with a fully funded scholarship to one of the best colleges in Faisalabad.
The discrimination she faced at this college however, proved to be an even bigger challenge than she expected, as she was not only struggling with her gender identity but also struggling to fit into an environment which was very class-conscious. As a result, her academics and mental health both suffered. Through unbelievable resilience and a strong commitment to herself she managed to secure an admission into a private university in Lahore as a student of Electrical Engineering. “That was one of the most challenging times of my life. I realized then that I was different and how being different is seen to be a crime. Now, looking back, I say ‘being different is not a crime’ but at that time I felt it was a crime and I was a criminal.” She would be ridiculed by her peers and excluded from group based activities. She had to face both verbal and physical harassment of the worst kind. Today she recognizes this as Transphobia.
“My mental health suffered to an extent where I was unable to move and there were clear physical signs of distress. I thought there was nothing to look forward to and I was bed ridden for a year.”
“Perseverance” - this is the word that describes the force of nature that is Reem Sharif, turning her back to a challenge is an alien concept to her. She remembers how one day she just woke up, determined to take back control of her life. During the worst depression of her life, she remembers the support and encouragement she received from her mother and her friend Yasir whom she lovingly refers to as ‘bhai’ (which means brother). Reem went on to achieve a master’s degree; in international relations and women and gender studies, and the rest as they say is history. “This gave me the confidence to truly embrace my gender identity and openly accept that I was a transgender woman. I told bhai (Yasir) that I wanted to work as a transgender activist without feeling the need to hide my gender identity.”
Reem joined a civil society organization as a transgender woman and later became the first transgender person to join the Rawalpindi Police Department where she worked for the protection of transgender persons and supporting the rehabilitation of 300 people affected by gender-based violence. Today, Reem regularly lends her voice as a renowned transgender rights activist, an expert on gender and a gender inclusivity and anti-transphobia trainer. She also volunteers as a motivational speaker, shining as a symbol of courage, hope and resilience. Reem stands tall in the face of all challenges, holding a Youth Excellence Award by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Youth Icon of Pakistan award by Governor Punjab and recognition as a transgender woman Trailblazer of Pakistan 2021 by the President of Pakistan.
Ms. Reem Sharif, currently supports UNDP’s technical assistance to the Federal Ministry of Human Rights (MoHR) as a Transgender Persons Rights Expert. She works together with the MoHR towards realisation of its goals for an inclusive Pakistan. Reem’s has also served as a Coordinator of the National Committee for the Implementation of Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018 where she held extensive consultations with stakeholders to sensitize them on gender inclusion and protection of the rights of Transgender Persons. She lends her expertise to Pakistan’s first Transgender Protection Centre in Islamabad to ensure an accessible space to the transgender communities
“Honestly, the path of self-discovery is long and full of crossroads, but when you reach the end, you feel gratitude for having made the arduous journey. Today I proudly say that I am a transgender woman, but the search for these two words led to a journey of self-discovery that was more challenging each step of the way. I am glad that I took the first step all those years ago.”
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Story by: Amna Syed, Human Rights Reporting Expert, Decentralization, Human Rights, & Local Governance Project, UNDP Pakistan
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