UCA News

Christians split over Pakistan's transgender rights law

Some from minority community seem to share Muslim concerns, especially regarding Western-style same-sex marriages
Members of Pakistan’s transgender community shout slogans during a demonstration to protest the killing of a transgender woman in Lahore on Sept. 14, 2020

Members of Pakistan’s transgender community shout slogans during a demonstration to protest the killing of a transgender woman in Lahore on Sept. 14, 2020. (Photo: AFP)

Published: October 03, 2022 11:06 AM GMT
Updated: October 03, 2022 11:37 AM GMT

Christians in Pakistan have mixed feelings about the raging opposition to a transgender rights law in the country after an amendment was proposed to help transgender people select their gender with medical help.

Muslim groups such as the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) say the four-year-old law itself has several clauses that are incompatible with Sharia law and had the potential to create social conflicts in society.

The 2018 law — Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act — allowed transgender people to opt for a gender group of their choice as they perceived their sexuality. It also allowed them to change their gender in government documents issued before 2018.

Hard-line Muslim groups have been opposing the law saying it is un-Islamic to allow people to choose their gender. They fear such laws will lead to same-sex relations, prohibited in Islamic Sharia law.

The opposition to the law has stiffened since Sept. 16, when Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan filed a petition in the Federal Shariat Court (Islamic Law Court) against the transgender rights law, saying it contradicts the Islamic principles of heredity.

The Sharia courts are separately hearing different petitions in favor and against the law as extremist political parties continue social media campaigns urging the government to repeal the "immoral" law.

Senator Khan of the Jamaat-i-Islami, a hard-line Islamist political party, last November proposed amendments to make the law more Islamic. One of the amendments wants the government to establish a board of medical experts to examine and recommend the gender of a transgender person.

“The concept of self-perceived gender identity leads the way to change sex and legalize same-sex marriages,” Qibla Ayaz, CII chairman told UCA News.

And some Christians also seem to share the concerns of CII, especially regarding same-sex marriages.

“We should accept the gender [bestowed] by the grace of God and declared by doctors at the time of birth. Transgenders have the right to live as other citizens but churches cannot solemnize gay or lesbian marriages,” said Pastor Ayub Gill of the Christ Pentecostal Evangelical Church in Youhanabad, the largest Christian locality in Lahore.

However, Franciscan Brother Khushi Lal, who has ministered to sex workers, particularly those from transgender communities for over three decades, had another opinion.

“We can’t stop how a person perceives him or herself. The transgenders are vulnerable people like women and children and thus require laws protecting them, as well as their rights,” he said.

Brother Lal said the nation can pass a law but the real challenge lies in implementing it in a conservative Muslim society, where minorities, religious or sexual, face regular discrimination.

“The clergy is feeling insecure and cannot accept transgenders as equals,” he said.

Reverend Emanuel Khokhar, dean of the diocese at the Raiwind Church of Pakistan, agreed with Brother Lal.

“Many people including pastors are opposing the law without reading it. A common fear is that the law will lead to European-style same-sex marriages,” he said.

An inheritance problem

Senator Khan believes allowing citizens to choose self-perceived gender identity presents a real challenge to Pakistani society’s family and inheritance systems.

The country follows the traditional Islamic system of inheritance, which divides assets on the basis of the gender of the descendants. A woman is entitled to only half of what men get from their family’s assets and wealth.

Senator Khan’s amendment proposes that a person identifying as a transgender man would be entitled to get as much as a man. This, according to him, opens the door to the nation’s 220 million people to choose to be anything they want to be, man, woman, trans man, or trans woman.

The law encouraged more people to apply for gender change, Khan and his supporters maintain. Some 30,000 people have applied to National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) — the department responsible for issuing identification documents — to change their gender, the senator said during a Sept. 5 session of the Senate’s Human Rights Committee.

However, if official figures with NADRA are to be believed, Pakistan had 2,978 transgender people with computerized national identity cards issued to them as of July.

Among them, 1,856 were those who registered for the first time, while 1,035 had changed their gender from male and 87 from female.

Senator Khan wants that the law should only cater to those who cannot be categorized as male or female at birth based on their sexual or reproductive anatomy.

Continuing discrimination

The Christian priests, cutting across denominations, were united in speaking for the rights of transgender people.

“They deserve equal rights to inheritance, education, health, employment and voting,” Reverend Khokhar said.

Transgender people are commonly referred to in Pakistan as Khawaja Siras, an umbrella term denoting a third sex that includes transvestites and eunuchs.

A transgender person, according to Pakistan’s 2018 law, is anyone with a mixture of male and female genital features or ambiguous genitalia, a person assigned male at birth but who has undergone castration, or any person whose gender identity or expression differs from their assigned sex at birth.

Rights activists say although the purpose of the law was to protect the rights of transgender people, most such people continue to be marginalized both socially and economically, living as beggars and prostitutes, often the targets of exploitation and violence.

Four transgender people were killed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the most conservative province in the past month.

Trans-rights activists blame the violence on the lumping together of “transgender” with “homosexuality,” which is considered anti-Islamic and a punishable offense in Pakistan.

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