In Pakistan and India, Transgendered but No Longer Endangered

By on February 29th, 2012 1 Comment

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The transgender community finds itself increasingly acknowledged by Indian and Pakistani law. (Photo: Dawn)

The transgender community finds itself increasingly acknowledged by Indian and Pakistani law. (Photo: Dawn)

The topic of rights for the LGBT community is one that is commonly the catalyst for heated political debates in the United States. But are parts of South Asia jumping ahead of the curve in terms of moving the debate forward?

On this side of the pond, supporters of the LGBT community recently celebrated victories in the states of Washington and Maryland, as same-sex marriages became legal. Advocates in New Hampshire are anxiously waiting to see if a similar, and now two-year-old law, will soon be repealed. And most recently, New Jersey’s legislative body passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriages, with a 42-33 vote, but within a short week New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, true to his personal vow, vetoed the bill–thus guaranteeing the debate would continue.

If this is the situation in the country that stands for “liberty and justice for all”–a Western nation that for so long others have admired and emulated–one might be surprised to know that the Eastern nations of Pakistan and India have been quickly striding forward to cross the lines of gender inequity, leaving America in their tracks.

In November of 2011, the transgender community in Pakistan was elated at the nation’s High Court ruling that expanded–or quite possibly created–rights for the group: affirmative action and the right to vote.

Centuries ago, transgenders, or hijras (the equivalent of ‘eunuchs’), were welcome figures in the palaces of the Mogul Empire as entertainers and even guards in the palace harems. To this day, they are often seen popping into weddings in Pakistan and India to wish newlyweds luck and, in most cases, receive a small payment for doing so. However, as with the homosexual community of ancient Rome, hijras soon became the hallmark of religious transgression and were–and often continue to be–scorned in modern-day society.

But not for long. The November High Court ruling, though seemingly simple, is a serious step forward for a country still abiding by Islamic law. Pakistani Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry invoked ‘suo moto’ notice to allow the court to intervene in place of other branches of government to allow the transgender community the right to vote, while identifying themselves as a third sex. Quite simply, the new law adds another check-box to the standard male/female squares on national ID cards. Additionally, in a similar vein, the high court ordered for transgenders to be given preference for civil service jobs.

Similarly, India overturned a nearly 150-year-old law in 2009, which had until then established same-sex relationships as illegal ‘unnatural offenses’. The Delhi High Court decriminalized the ruling in a fashion similar to the U.S. Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas, which invalidated the 14 remaining sodomy laws in the books. Now the 2009 ruling faces challenges from groups opposed to India’s “imitation of Western practices”.

But with all the flip-flopping aside, one thing is for certain. LGBT rights remain a hot-button political topic, no matter which side of the Atlantic one might be on. And, as of right now, South Asia is not far behind in pushing that button toward progress.

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Sabeen H. Ahmad is the Social Media Editor at Divanee.

  • Nikola-Kovacs

    Well congratulations to all transgender people in Pakistan and India. “A serious step forward” as the article describes, something many of us in other parts of the world take for granted while forgetting that other community members in other parts of the world are still experiencing serious inequality.