Riffie Khan has a Double Master’s degree from Shah Abdul University in Shikarpur in Economics and Political Sciences. However, despite her academic achievements, she has been unable to hold down a job. In 2003, Khan was forced to leave her job at the National Medical Centre in Karachi, where she worked as front desk officer, because she did not fit in. Khan is one of many transgender people in the country who suffer in their professional and personal lives due to discrimination. “It’s the educated people that upset me the most,” she says. “When they discriminate against people like me, it hurts even more.”
There are an estimated 500,000 ‘third-gender’ citizens in Pakistan, including cross-dressers, transsexuals, eunuchs, hermaphrodites, and transvestites. In 2012, the Pakistani government recognised the transgender population and a three-member bench of the Supreme Court, headed by former chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, ruled that the transgender community is entitled to rights guaranteed in the Constitution to all citizens, including the right of inheritance. Prior to this, as transgenders did not classify themselves as ‘male’ or ‘female’ on official documents, they were barred from basic rights, such as voting. In the general elections of May 2013, five members of the community also contested polls.
However, while their rights are guaranteed on paper, members of the transgender community say they do not have these rights in practice. While the Supreme Court ordered that free education and free health-care must be guaranteed to the community, provincial departments have yet to implement this decision. Riffie Khan says that while many transgenders describe themselves as “professional wedding dancers”, they are forced to turn to prostitution to make ends meet.
Khan has been lucky to land a job in the Social Welfare Department. She works in Karachi with Bindiya Rana, the founder of the Gender Interactive Alliance (GIA) — an organisation working for the equality and civil rights of transgender people in Pakistan — and runs a small home-based clothing business. “I have been denied all the opportunities I deserved even though I have the required level of education,” Khan claims. “I have a double Masters, yet I am only paid Rs15,000 per month and I have been forced to leave every job I have ever had.”
In 2012, the transgender community was promised a 2% quota in employment by the government. However, community members say the quota has not improved their situation. “Our status of employment has remained the same,” says Khan. She says when she raises the issue at the Social Welfare Department where she works, she is told, ‘It will happen in due time’. “Why can’t the department open up a section of Khwaja Sarras as well, to examine the employment rate and opportunities for us?” she asks. “We keep reminding them that it has been three years since the government promised us the quota. But things are still the same.”
“We have to keep reminding the government what they owe us, over and over again,” says Bindiya Rana, who feels that the quota is mismanaged. “When we were finally recognised and issued National Identity Cards, it felt like the Supreme Court gave us in one year what we had hoped to achieve in 15 years.” She adds, “Now, however, when we look at the progress we have made, it feels as though we have climbed just one step and there are many more hurdles to cross.”
Many members of Pakistan’s transgender community have studied until the Intermediate level. Others have received vocational training as beauticians or cooks. However, employment still remains uncertain. “People need to understand that your clothes and your gender orientation don’t make you forget or lose your skills and abilities,” says Bindiya Rana. The insecurity of being unemployed means that many members of the community plan ahead, particularly during months such as Ramazan when prices are hiked. For instance, Rana explains that many transgenders give up sex work and dancing during the month of Ramazan but work overtime the month before so they are able to survive the month of fasting. “It is hard to make ends meet lawfully especially when we are underemployed and unemployed,” she says.
While some members of the community are denied employment, others are not given the salaries they are owed. Rimsha, for instance, has been employed at the Clifton Cantonment Board since 2010. Her salary has been slowly increased over five years, spurred by protests organised by Rana, and she is now paid Rs15,000, an amount that is largely spent on transportation every month. “There are so many others like me, and when they can’t make ends meet they find other ways to earn money, such as begging,” says Rimsha. Since 2010, Rimsha has been ‘on probation’ and her contract is renewed as needed. “According to the labour laws someone working for you for three months should be considered a permanent employee,” argues Khan.
Rana explains that the community can only progress if it can sustain itself. “We need loans to be able to start businesses, so we can get off the streets,” Rana says. It is only through employment that the community can end a reliance on sex work, and thereby curb, the threat of HIV and AIDS, she feels. “If we were able to run restaurants or beauty parlours, we could give opportunities to others who are not as educated.”
Rana urges the government to provide vocational training that targets the community specifically. “Even when we try to pursue an education, we are victimised,” says Riffie Khan. She recalls that when she visited a training institute in Karachi to improve her fluency in English, she was harassed. “People at the center asked me how I had dared to come there,” she says. “They told me I could not join the regular classes and would instead have a separate class where no other students would be allowed. I was made to feel guilty for being me.”
Zainab Sadia Saeed is a social worker, writing to unearth the real heroes.
She tweets @zainabssaeed
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 30th, 2015.