I have been harshly critical in the past about Pakistan’s slide into religious intolerance, with its Muslim fundamentalist zealots killing and otherwise threatening non-Muslims under the cover of the state’s odious blasphemy laws. The prohibitions, discrimination, and harassment campaigns against the LGBT community in the Islamic world are also well documented. But I heard an encouraging story about a Pakistan TV station having its first transgender news anchor. Maavia Malik is a former model and her selection has not caused the kind of uproar one might have expected in a conservative Muslim country but was instead greeted with an overwhelmingly positive response.
It also appears that just last year Pakistan passed new laws protecting this community.
Earlier this year, the Senate passed a key bill to ensure the third gender’s protection against sexual and physical assaults and harassment.
The Criminal Law (Amendment) (Protection of Rights of Transgender Persons) Act 2017 criminalised a host of offences against the transgender persons and provides for awarding stringent punishments to the perpetrators.
According to the bill, kidnapping, abducting or inducing a transgender person to have illicit intercourse shall be punishable with life imprisonment and fine.
The bill made the denial of the right to admission to an educational institution punishable with up six-month to two-year imprisonment or fine extendable up to Rs300,000.
Depriving a transgender person from inheriting property shall be punished with 5-year to 10-year imprisonment or with a fine of Rs1 million or both.
Unlawful eviction of a transgender person from any place shall be punishable with up six-month to two-year imprisonment or fine up to Rs100,000.
New laws also add transgender as a category on census forms and makes government-issued national ID cards that everyone is expected to carry with them at all times, have three categories of gender: male, female, and transgender.
You might notice the use of the phrase ‘third gender’ in the above report. According to a segment on the radio program The World (from the 8:20 to the 13:50 mark) this is a category that has apparently existed in Pakistan for decades, even centuries.
Members of the third gender community consider themselves neither male nor female. As far as I can tell from the brief report, the defining characteristic of this community is what we used to call transvestites or cross-dressers, people who consider themselves male dressing up as women and vice versa. The distinction between that group and transgender seems to have become blurred in the west. For example, I have followed comedian Eddie Izzard for a long time and he used to describe himself as a transvestite but now calls himself transgender.
But in Pakistan, that distinction seems to be significant. Malik is emphatic that she is not third gender but is a woman and this has brought the discussion of the difference into the forefront. Oddly enough, according to the radio report, the category of transgender seems to have aroused opposition from the third gender community who see it as a western idea and claim that one’s gender is fixed by their god and is what one is born with and cannot be changed.