Transphobia is a relatively new English word for many of us. If you go online today, you will see #transphobia popping up on Twitter and Facebook alongside various other hashtags. It is an important word in the fast-paced, global dialogue of our time. We, the undersigned Ambassadors, High Commissioners and United Nations officials, invite you to reflect on this word today.
The United Nations describes transphobia as an irrational fear, hatred or aversion towards transgender people. These human beings, described with the term khawaja sara in Urdu, have a longstanding visibility in South Asian societies. Yet transgender Pakistanis continue to face discrimination and even a risk of violence, just as transgender individuals do in most parts of the world.
Those of you reading this newspaper may be a transgender person yourself or may have transgender friends or family. Most of us, though, have likely seen a transgender individual going about his or her daily life but have not had the chance to sit down together and chat. This lack of familiarity, this lack of human connection, feeds the aversion on which transphobia is built. All humans have a tendency to reject that which they do not understand.
It is for this reason that we welcome the steps that Pakistan’s government and people are taking to empower transgender citizens in this country, further strengthening the principle of equal rights for all.
The Supreme Court extended legal recognition of transgender Pakistanis in 2012 and afterwards NADRA began to offer identity cards with an option to mark “transgender.” Pakistanis have not stopped there, though, and the past year has seen a series of important steps.
Media are increasingly covering issues important to the transgender community. Crimes against transgender people are reported, peaceful protests are photographed and opinions are shared.
In June 2016, fifty Islamic clerics in Lahore held a constructive dialogue on transgender Pakistanis and marriage, inheritance and funeral rituals. In July 2016, after two transwomen in Faisalabad were horribly assaulted, the police registered an FIR against their aggressors. We understand this may have been the first-ever police investigation into assault of transgender individuals in this country.
In December 2016, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa legislature passed a landmark resolution on transgender political empowerment. That same month, President Mamnoon Hussain honoured a group working to promote transgender rights with his inaugural National Human Rights Awards.
And as you read this article, Pakistan’s census workers are crossing the country and giving citizens the opportunity to be counted as transgender for the first time.
Positive developments such as these provide hope for many and are the foundations of progress. There is much debate about whether the resolutions and the FIRs and the media reports say enough of the right things, or address all of the important issues. Debates like this continue around the world, and they often reflect uncomfortable truths in society. But they are debates that are healthy and good: such debates have helped many countries address those truths in developing more tolerant and accepting societies.
We cannot forget or ignore the violence committed against transgender people in Pakistan in the past year, or the risk that such violence will occur again. There is a long way to go in ensuring that transgender individuals have access to education, jobs and health care, and that they can live free of social stigma. These challenges are not limited only to Pakistan. They are relevant to most countries, including the ones the diplomats among us represent. We are all united in working towards equal rights for all citizens.
We recognise the ongoing work in Pakistan to address transphobia. To all those human rights activists, politicians, civil servants, religious leaders, members of the media and everyday citizens who have worked to make a difference for transgender Pakistanis, we commend you and encourage you to keep up the good work.
Ending transphobia requires big decisions such as legislation and court rulings, media policies and religious dialogues. But it is also built on the small choices we each make every day. There are many words in Urdu and English to describe the transgender community. Many are ugly, impolite and offensive. We reject these words.
In our meetings with transgender leaders, we have been told that “transgender” and “khawaja sara” are respectful words to refer to members of their community. We choose these words, and we encourage you to use them, too. In doing so, we are all taking an important step to ending transphobia and fostering the principle of equal rights for all, in Pakistan and around the world.
On the occasion of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia 2017.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 17th, 2017.