With elections in Pakistan just around the corner, transgender activists in the country are pushing for a seat at the table.
The plight of the transgender community in the South Asian country is pretty well-documented. For years, the community have been subjected to widespread harassment and discrimination not only by employers, education services, healthcare providers, but also by their own family members.
However, in a refreshing breakthrough last year, some handful of nations passed certain legislation recognizing their rights— and Pakistan became one of those countries that provided protection for the minority, known locally in the country as khwaja siras — an umbrella term for members of the “third sex” community.
But, unfortunately, the ordeal of the transgender people in the South Asian countries is far from over.
The largely conservative society of Pakistan, for instance, continues to shun and ridicule them. Khwaja siras are often deemed as misfits, eventually relegating them to begging and prostitution to make a living, leaving them vulnerable to harassment, physical abuse and rape.
The stories of transgender candidates standing for seats in Pakistan's parliament are no different.
For Nayyab Ali, the hardships began when she was only 13-year-old and her family turned their backs on her by forcing her to leave the house. Once out in the world with no one by her side, she was attacked from all sides. First, she was physically and verbally abused by her relatives and then later, she was attacked with acid by her former boyfriend.
Fortunately, not only did Ali survive all the horrors life threw her way, she also got herself a degree from a university —and now she wants her voice to be heard.
"I realized that without political power and without being part of the country's institutions, you cannot gain your rights," said Ali, who is contesting in Pakistan's upcoming general election.
In an interview with the BBC, Ali also highlighted the intensity of the current situation where being marginalized from the society is no longer the biggest challenge for them in the country— as it’s their lives that are in danger.
"Transgender people are being murdered now. There used to be incidents of beating and acid attacks and we were spared, but these days they just kill us," she explained.
According to local activists, almost 60 transgender women were forcefully put to death in the past three years in the ultraconservative north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Alisha, a 23-year-old transgender activist, died of gunshots because the hospital couldn’t decide which ward, male or female, to admit her to.
However, Ali is not alone in the electoral race as few other members of the community are spurred by a desire to help country’s transgender community have a voice in the national dialogue.
Maria, another transgender activist from the city of Mansehra, who is standing as an independent candidate for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembly, had a brush with death at her own house.
"I barely survived an assassination attempt when shots were fired at my house in Mansehra. There are still bullet holes all over my front door," she said.
Maria, who recently graduated from Hazara University, also revealed a horrifying reality of so-called honor killings which remains one of the biggest threats to the local transgender community.
"Our own family hires people to murder us," she explained.
However, Maria could finally see light at the end of the tunnel when she received an overwhelmingly positive response on her decision to contest in the elections. In fact, many reportedly came forward to donate for her largely self-funded campaign.
Adding to the list of transgender people who are running for the parliament is a transgender rights activist and former makeup artist, Nadeem Kashish.
But unlike other candidates of her community, Kashish is not running for some local seat of a small town. She has bigger dreams —as she wants to be the next prime minister of Pakistan.
Kashish knew her opponents are some of the biggest names in the country’s politics but that didn’t dim her spirits and she’s using whatever meagre resources she had to run her campaign.
She said despite the recent legislation, "no political party in Pakistan wants to work on transgender rights, we are not in their agenda. This is the reason I want to run for parliament.”
As of yet, Kashish uses her own radio program to talk about the fundamental issues of her community. But, it appears, she now wants a bigger platform to voice her concerns.
"I don't have a lot of money to spend on banners, flags, transport and other traditional campaigning resources, like these big politicians. I am spreading my message through my radio program," she said.
Politicians in Pakistan have a penchant for spending exorbitant amount of money on election campaigns despite of restrictions placed on candidates by the electoral commission.
However, the luxury of throwing away that amount of money on campaigns, is not something transgender people in the country can afford.
"Everyone knows it's a game for rich men. I didn't even have the money to file my nomination papers," said Kashish, underscoring one of the many obstacles the community continue to face.
Sadly, at least eight candidates were reportedly forced to withdraw their candidacy due to a lack of funds.
Nevertheless, Kashish is determined to challenge the traditional country’s politics.
"This is our time. Only with the participation of transgender people is Pakistan's democratic process complete," she added.
Omar Waraich, deputy director of Amnesty International in South Asia, also had his fingers crossed for the upcoming election, which is turning out to be a significant period for transgender rights in Pakistan.
“For me, the real historic moment will be when a transgender candidate wins a seat,” Waraich said. “No one can say whether that will happen in these elections but you do get a sense that there is a sense of wanting to try something different.”
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