The case of the third gender

Dr Meher Zaidi June 23, 2010
The incidence of the third gender or transgender is not known in Pakistan. An estimate of transgender persons in India is around 1:400. Pakistan being in the same ethno-geographical class may have parallel results. The discriminatory attitude is even shown in statistical divisions as reported in population reports, 51% females and 49% males. As if the transgender persons do not exist.

According to Madeline H Wyndzen, PhD, a transgendered professor of psychology, “there is similarity in expressed insensitivity to this issue both in psychopathology and the lay man’s attitude. It comes in the form of value judgments as the assumption that transgenderism is a problem and in a “paternal” way of assuming they know what’s best for us.”

In Pakistan the existence of transgendered people has only very recently been acknowledged by the Supreme Court when the chief justice ordered identity cards and medical and other facilities for them. The recent article in The Express Tribune about a survey where 55 per cent people approved acknowledgement of facilities and rights to transgender persons, and 60 per cent did not want to be friends with the same, or be in an office or study place with them shows the general insensitivity to this issue.

This attitude may be due to ‘fear of the unknown’ factor as is evident in children being scared of people different from themselves, or due to experience with transgender persons who are at a lower social and economic ladder.

In a society where the entire focus is on male/female segregation and laws based on the “biological” sex differentiation, the existence of “Transgender persons” is just an anomaly to be brushed under the carpet.

The social issues of gender identity, their human rights, are very farfetched ideas according to certain “religious” representatives, not to be debated or discussed intellectually as they are imported from foreign countries.

However, the concept of “doing justice “in Islam is very strong. According to the Quran, an Islamic way of life does not exist without the values of egalitarianism being supported, cherished and nurtured in a society where Muslims live. The issues here have become obvious. Are societies where a majority of Muslims live more egalitarian or where there are minority Muslims living but the values are based on liberty, freedom and human rights more egalitarian?

As most Muslim laws address the male/female issues, the modern day Muslims seem to interpret all issues about gender based on the biological sex differences. The Pakistani society needs to address the transgender issue on the basis of egalitarianism if they also want to stick to Quranic injunctions.

What is transgender?

There are many identities and definitions but some common issues are discussed. The Gender Identity Disorder (GID) has been classified as a DSM IV, mental disorder. This is being debated again whether it is a mental disorder or not. This group includes transvestites, cross dressers, transvestites and generally people born with a particular sex, identifying themselves as another sex.

A famous chief minister of Sindh in a previous government was a cross dresser, though he kept it to his chief minister house, at night time only. In our culture such practices are accepted quietly but open discussion is taboo to show that “all is well” as prescribed by the law. In the USA there is heated debate on being “gender different” as a “trans right”. People who advocate all rights for transgender persons strongly advocate “inclusion of being gender different as the right of all persons”.

People born with no male sexual genitalia but having a male voice and facial hair are also identified as transgender. Such persons are known as “Hijras” in our society but now have come to include all GID persons.

Violence against transgender

There is a concerted effort in the world to bring down the prejudices and violence statistics against Transgender persons as it is seen that the highest rate of death by violent murder in the US and South America, even by the police, is against transgender persons. One in 12 transgender women are murdered in the USA. Sixty per cent of all transgender persons in the USA have been subjected to violent hate crimes due to bigotry and intolerance.

Amnesty International is gravely concerned about police brutality against transgender persons in the USA.  I have quoted these examples for Pakistani legislators and policy makers to understand the provisions of laws governing rights to transgender persons removing intolerance and bigotry. Only through legislation ending discrimination against any person based on sex will ensure access of transgender persons to basic right to health, education, employment, civil liberties.

In Pakistan the following issues need urgent attention of both the government and philanthropists:

Health: Due to extreme poverty and lack of access to education and employment, many in this group are earning a living through sex and diseases like HIV AIDS, STDs, and Tuberculosis are rampant in the community. Use of drugs and non-use of condoms further adds to high spread and prevalence. All sources of such programs for detection, diagnosis and treatment should be streamlined and a health card based on ID card should be issued on priority basis. This scheme should be implemented on an urgent basis. The sensitization of health and administrative personnel should be done as a priority.

Education: A primary education program for children and an adult literacy program should be developed and transgender persons should be allowed to take admission in all educational institutions. This should be made compulsory by legislation. Special vocational courses and education should be provided to all transgender persons irrespective of their previous profession or social status. It has been seen that the show biz community and the make-up community has some great artists from this group.

Employment opportunities: These will open for transgender persons as their education and vocational training improves.  Gradually the socio-economic status and profile will change and in some 20 years a major perception change will occur.

Sensitization to transgender issues and compassionate handling should be advocated by everyone in the society. That Pakistan is quite tolerant of transgender persons is evident from the fact that the program “Begum Nawazish Ali” on TV is enjoyed by many and conservative people like Naimatullah Khan and others of the Jamat-e-Islami have graced the guest list.

It is high time that we tackle this issue on a more scientific basis and accept transgender persons in educational institutions and provide health services and good employment opportunities to bring them into the mainstream of our socio-economic life.
Dr Meher Zaidi A blog on development, health and human rights.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


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