September Issue 2019
Farzana Jan was made to dance for the police when she went to the police station for the first time – to report that some men had beaten her up. That was in 2002.
“I was young and could not think of going anywhere else except to the police station to seek redressal. However, instead of registering my complaint, the police told me to dance for them,” Jan, a transgender in her late thirties, tells Newsline in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s northwestern province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).
Seventeen years later, the landscape has changed. People can self-identify as male, female or “third sex” on official documents. The country has outlawed harassment and any form of discrimination against transgenders and given them equal rights, including the right to inherit property and assets, and the right to vote and to be counted in the national census.
Unfortunately, all these measures to empower the transgender community have failed to provide them security, especially in KP. Trans Action, an advocacy group that has been headed by Jan ever since she co-founded it in 2015, estimates that there are around 45,000 transgenders in the province, and at least half a million nationwide, against the official figure of 10,418, in a population of nearly 207 million people.
Abandoned by family and mocked by society, Jan’s life is as lonely as that of other transgenders. Forced to work as dancers and sex workers to support themselves, they are frequently attacked, murdered, kidnapped and raped. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which includes Peshawar, Nowshera, Mardan, Buner, Swabi, Swat and Bannu, is a hotbed of anti-transgender violence.
Though Jan has received her national identity card, passport and driver’s license with an X to symbolise the third sex printed under the gender category, she lives in constant fear of attacks in the small house she owns, surveilled by cameras. Hidden in the back of a sewer-lined street in the old city, the house’s main door is bolted from within.
Jan says she bought the house when she used to perform as a dancer at the local theatre and in films. “I earned good money then. But because of the threats, I have lost most of my work. I have not been able to put even 50,000 rupees together since taking up transgender activism,” she remarkes, adjusting her uncombed wet hair. A hub of all trans-related activities, Jan’s place has been targeted several times.
“I kept cats to rid me of my loneliness. But I am so hard up now because of the threats to my life that I may even get rid of my cats,” she says, as her grey and white pets hang around her.
The police registered one case of murder and a couple of cases of attacks on transvestites between 2002 and 2014. The number shot up to seven in 2015, nine in 2016 and 13 in 2017, including murders, injuries, and sexual assaults. In 2018, six transgenders were killed and eight others were gang-raped, according to police record.
However, transgender rights activists maintain that violence against transgenders has always existed and the number of reported and registered cases is only about one-fifth of the actual number of cases.
Qamar Naseem of Blue Veins, an organisation working for transgender rights, says 1,131 cases of violence against transgenders were reported between 2015 and 2017 in KP. “Of these, 67 cases were of murder – 42 transgenders had been killed by their boyfriends/intimate partners and four by their respective families, in the name of honour.” According to Jan’s Trans Action, 479 attacks against transgender women were reported in KP in 2018. There have been cases of violence against them elsewhere in the country as well. In 2018, a transgender woman died after being set on fire by four men in Sahiwal, Punjab when she resisted their sexual advances. In July this year, police found the bodies of two transgender women who were tortured and beaten to death in Harappa. The police said the motive behind the killings was unclear.
Transgenders are also among the victims of so-called honour killings carried out by relatives to punish perceived sexual transgressions.
Earlier in July, police arrested a man for murdering his transgender son Aftab Aurangzeb, 19, also known as Maya, who had been staying with a group of transgenders in Peshawar. The police said the father, Aurangzeb Akbar, had given them written assurance that he would not harm his son, when he was returned to him.
The police suspect that Akbar, a rich person, seemed disappointed by his son’s decision to live as a transgender as “it dishonoured him in the eyes of his extended family and in society.” The police have arrested two suspects, while two others remain at large.
Meanwhile, transgender women are often the target of extortionists. Last month, a gang of kidnappers tortured and shaved a transgender woman, Shakila’s head after she refused to pay them one million rupees as extortion money. Jan says, “This is a kind of ‘protection money’ which you pay so as to be allowed to work and dance in the area.” Such gangs are active all over the province. People pay the money and if they don’t, they are killed or tortured. The same gang had targeted Shakila twice before – demanding relatively smaller amounts of 40,000 and then 50,000 rupees, which she paid. The new demand was beyond her means.”
Living in an upscale area of the city, Asaday, a 22-year-old who left her family home eight years ago, says she had received a phone call for ransom twice that amount [two million rupees] the night before. “Afraid, I did not step out for the performance last night and I won’t go for one tonight either,” she says. Flaunting her tattooed hand, she says she has been attacked before along with two other colleagues and she was planning to lodge a complaint with the police about the threats.
Asaday lives in an apartment that is located above a market, with her mentor, Arzu Khan. Khan, in her 30s, is a matriculate; she received part of her education in a girls’ school and the rest in a boys’ school, amid taunts and jeers. She said she left her family home 12 years ago and joined a transgender group that gave dance performances at parties. Seven years ago, she acquired a job as a peon at the local committee. Promoted subsequently, she now works as a telephone operator there.
“I have been attacked several times. In May this year, I was having a conversation with a person who had tortured a transgender person when he attacked me with a knife. The owner of a shop downstairs rushed to help me. During the scuffle, the attacker attempted to slit my throat but ended up cutting my hair. I have shortened my hair since,” says Khan.
Taimur Kamal, the coordinator of the Pakhtunkhwa Civil Society Network, that has been working for the rights of the deprived and underprivileged communities since 2010, has suffered one such attack, along with transgenders Arzu Khan and Sunny, by armed men in the Gulbahar neighbourhood of Peshawar in 2017. “There were occasions when we registered three to four complaints of violence with the police in just one night,” says Kamal, an affable activist with greying hair.
“There are attacks galore but most transgenders do not report them for fear of reprisals from the attackers. Fearing retaliation, they prefer a compromise to a punishment,” shares Kamal, as he plays an audio message from a transgender who did not want him to press charges for last night’s kidnap incident with the police or report it to the media.
But this attitude of appeasment has only exacerbated the situation.
“Two of our colleagues have left for their hometown Mansehra, fearing attacks,” Khan informs Newsline, pointing to the two adjacent rooms in the apartment that were locked.
“I had asked for police protection because six transgenders lived here but I was denied that,” she says against the backdrop of the monitor of a security camera.
“Just kill us if you cannot provide us security,” says Arzu Khan in despair.
In an even more depressing state are the transgenders living a few kilometers away from Khan and Jan’s apartment. An estimated 350 transgender persons reside in rented apartments and rooms in three plazas on Peshawar’s Dalzak Road. They pay Rs 20,000 – Rs 25,000 for a single room in the plazas, while the normal rent here is no more than 8,000 rupees.
Last year, the transgenders were told to vacate the plazas after some of them were suspected of operating as ‘sex workers’ in the vicinity. Scores of men are seen standing on footpaths, astride parked motorbikes, or seated in their cars. Transgenders wearing heavy makeup stand on the stairs, all geared up for “business.”
It is outside one of these plazas that a 23-year-old transgender activist, Alisha, was shot eight times in 2016. “We go after money. They give us the money and then they want us to follow their diktat. They treat us like banks, which pay the interest along with the principal. They kidnap us. They kidnap our mentors. And then they torture and kill us,” said Jan, while recounting Alisha’s case.
Alisha died in a hospital after the shooting, which her friends, including Farzana Jan, blame on the delay in medical care provided to her. While the staff at Lady Reading Hospital, one of the largest medical facilities in KP, dithered over whether to place her in the ward for male or female patients, the men at the hospital taunted them outside the emergency room.
“Transgenders are allowed into a hospital only when they are killed or have HIV Aids. Even my cats have a medical facility I can take them to,” says Jan in anguish. “We also fall ill. We have the same needs as men and women. We only need a four-bed ward for our sick,” she says.
In late July, the health department of KP had ordered hospitals in the province to spare four to five beds for transgender patients to ensure non-discrimination.
In the federal capital, Islamabad, a commissioner has been appointed to redress the grievances of transgenders and a government hospital offers them free treatment in a separate ward.
For the transgenders to be socially empowered they need to be economically empowered, contends Dr Razaullah, a social scientist. “We need to make them take pride in their identity by making them learn entrepreneurial skills. Economic empowerment will earn them a place in society. And that will reduce the violence against them.”
Dr Razaullah pushes for affirmative action. “We need to give them education and health facilities. TV plays should show transgenders as teachers, police and role models. The language used in the media needs to be non-discriminatory.”
Efforts to provide vocational training and help transgender persons to open beauty parlours and boutiques have been patchy. Jan proposes the setting up of an endowment fund to help them build their careers or set up businesses.
The provincial human rights policy recommends steps to ensure transgender persons their rights, and raise awareness among the government and the public with respect to the identity and the rights of transgenders. It also suggests that local government institutions work for the education and skill development of transgenders. Further, it stresses on the importance of a reliable registration mechanism so that transgender persons could be provided protection, social services and a budgetary allocation by the provincial government.
Malik Maqsood Ali, a government official who oversees the redressal of human rights complaints, tells Newsline, “We monitor and pursue cases of human rights violations. Investigators and police need to be trained on modern lines. While a protection policy for transgenders is yet to be approved, we have proposed that the laws that are already in place for their protection, be made more effective.”
After frequent reports of transgenders being mugged, assaulted and harassed across the city, a committee has been formed for better liaison between the transgenders and the police. Muhammad Shoaib, a top police official in the Faqeerabad neighbourhood where most transgenders live, is the focal person of the committee.
Smartly turned out in his police uniform, Shoaib says, “They can call me directly if there is a complaint of violence. There have been 100 percent arrests in such cases. The suspected killer of Aftab alias Maya was arrested overnight. Occasionally, the trans community itself makes a compromise with the criminal through local jirgas (informal courts). If a complainant forgives the accused after taking compensation or blood money (deeyat), what can the police do?”
“We are now focusing on preventing crimes against them,” says Shoaib. “The transgenders are required to inform the police of any event they might be participating in; if they are uneasy, a police mobile is posted at the venue. Sometimes they avoid registering themselves with the local police. Then there are those who are into peddling drugs. If the police intervene, they protest. We are accountable to our seniors, people in the media. There is no reason to delay registration of complaints with the police,” remarks Shoaib.
While acknowledging that the police attitude is changing gradually, Farzana Jan does not take it to be the whole truth: “A crime is only logged after members of the trans community stage a protest or share news of the attacks on social media. The violence is high, but the conviction rate is very low on account of poor prosecution.
Sixty-seven transgenders have been killed in four years. Only Alisha’s killer has been handed down the death sentence in July by Judge Saadia Andaleeb. The rest have just disappeared into the night!”