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Transsexuals seek political visibility ahead of elections

Pakistan's transgenders want their voices heard

 Transsexuals seek political visibility ahead of elections
Transsexuals speak to reporters outside the Lahore Press Club last week reporter, Lahore

February 6, 2013

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The khwaja saras stood outside the Lahore Press Club wearing heavy make-up and posing lightheartedly for a group of bemused reporters.

Their giggling banter with the press was perhaps the result of habit. 

Transsexuals comprise a minute percentage of the population (about a tenth of one percent), and they make their living as they can, most often begging on the street, dancing and singing, or in some cases as sex workers.

But their presence last week at the Press Club had a much more serious aim than their outward levity might have suggested.

As the nation prepares for elections later this year, the khwaja saras (who are also known as hijras) have taken this opportunity to make a plea for political patronage in a Muslim-majority country that sees them ironically as both playthings and monstrosities. 

“Our votes can make a difference and help to highlight the difficulties facing our community,” says Aashee Butt, president of the Be-Ghr (Homeless) foundation. “We are not merely born for entertainment.”

Butt’s comments came amid a conference on this year’s elections organized by the Centre for Human Rights Education (CHRE).

The conference aimed to encourage greater participation of religious minorities and other marginalized communities in upcoming elections. 

Butt noted, however, that the so-called “third gender” appeared nowhere in election manifestos presented at the conference by political parties and NGO representatives.

They remain politically invisible despite a Supreme Court ruling in 2011 that transsexuals be included as a category in the National Database and Registration Authority, which issues national identity cards.

The apex court’s ruling further gave transsexuals the right to vote, which sparked excitement among the community that has for decades demanded legal protections against the sexual humiliation they say they regularly endured within educational and health institutions.

A few in the transsexual community even announced that they would run for political office as independent candidates after the court ruling, but the excitement quickly passed.

“I was mocked and discouraged after a few television appearances,” said Almas Bobby, who announced that she would contest National Assembly elections against cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan in 2011.

She added that the government’s failure on a variety of social and political issues gave it little ground to dismiss the aspirations of the transsexual community out of hand, many of whom believe they can make substantive contributions to the betterment of society. 

“The ruling elite has failed the country on issues like terrorism, energy and inflation. Our VIP culture and rampant corruption have eaten away our assets,” she said. 

Bobby said the transsexual community is much more liberal and secular-minded, which is vital for progress in the country.

“We need someone in the upper house who has been in the streets and who thinks beyond his family, someone who can generate job opportunities for us and convince others to treat us as human beings. A transsexual is the best option for this.”

Transgender advocates say the government has been much more open to even smaller communities than theirs – evidence, they say, of deeply held prejudices.

They point to data from the Election Commission of Pakistan, which lists 687 eunuchs as having registered to vote. 

Pakistan has an estimated 80,000 transsexuals, though actual figures are difficult to determine, and advocates say that this constitutes an effective electoral voice for transgender issues.

“Their actual population is even higher. Major political parties can make use of this bank in the election race, where every vote counts,” said Samson Salamat, director of CHRE.

“Political parties should open membership to the transgender community and should also, wherever possible, award party tickets to contest elections or include them on special seats for parliament,” he added.

Pakistan’s transsexuals live largely in the shadows. While advocates say political empowerment is necessary, they add that its effects would be minimal without addressing the underlying hatred and discrimination that remains deeply entrenched in the country’s conservative culture.

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