NMHA activity also extends to helping sexual minorities with health and awareness of safe sex. There is an acute HIV epidemic amongst the population of transgender women in Pakistan. Much more needs to be done, especially for young transwomen who are the most at risk. NMHA provides counselling to their clients to encourage safer sexual practices; voluntary counselling and testing services for HIV; treatment of sexually transmitted infections and provision of free condoms and lubes.
What it's really like to be part of the LGBT community in Pakistan
In Pakistan, no civil rights laws exist to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
The LGBT+ community continues to suffer widespread abuse, harassment, and discrimination in Pakistani society.
Many of them end up becoming beggars or sex workers. Many 'hijras' (a derogatory term for transgender people, eunuchs and intersex people in the Urdu language) have been raped and tortured in the country, and 58 were murdered in the past three years in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province alone.
Many people consider their sexual ambiguities to be God-given, and they are sought out as mediators to Allah and are considered able to offer blessing and curses. Wedding parties often hire them to dance, and they can operate in places where women are not allowed to leave the house.
Despite the lack of rights for such individuals in Pakistan, activists say things are improving for the transgender community in the South Asian country, where homosexuality is illegal.
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Kami Sid is a trans and human rights activist fighting for the rights of the trans community in her country. Did you know? In Pakistan, transgender women are marginalised and often have to resort to begging and sex work to survive. They are often subject to acts of rape and violence. #striveforglobalequality
This year, a new law was implemented by the parliament granting basic rights for transgender people in Pakistan. A majority vote was passed in the National Assembly in the capital, Islamabad, by the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act.
According to the law, discrimination and harassment against transgender people are banned in the workplace, public places or in homes. It also allows transgender people to identify as male, female or a 'third sex' on passports or driving licenses.
The law pledges to build secure houses and provide free health care and counselling for transgender people.
Last year, Pakistan's transgender community was included in the national census for the first time, which recorded 10,418 transgender people in a population of more than 200 million. However, the charity Trans Action Pakistan say there are about half a million transgender people living in the country.
Transgender activists in Pakistan are being supported by a local non-governmental organisation called Naz Male Health Alliance (NMHA) which aims to rid trans people of violence and discrimination at all levels. NMHA was founded in 2011 and is the first and only LGBT community-based organisation in Pakistan. Many of the employees of Naz Male Health Alliance identify as LGBT and are members of the hijra communities. They provide financial and moral support for the improvement of welfare and sexual health of the LGBT community throughout the country.
Although Pakistan has recognised the third gender on ID cards, many members of the LGBT community are hesitant to obtain one. This is because it would make it impossible for them to visit the holy city of Mecca as a transgender.
Transgender people are being accepted in Pakistani society
Earlier this year, Marvia Malik, 21, became Pakistan’s first transgender newsreader after making her debut appearance on Kohenoor TV news channel.
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In a first for Pakistan’s media industry, a Lahore based private news channel has hired the country’s first transgender news anchor. Marvia Malik, a 21-year-old transgender from Lahore has instantly been turned into a celebrity as news of her employment spread on social media #marviamalik #marviamalikanchor #newsanchor #pakistan #transgenderpakistan
Malik said she had received an “overwhelming” positive response after footage of her first appearance on the local TV channel went viral. She burst into the limelight after the Senate passed a bill to protect transgender people and a Pakistan province agreed to allow “X” as a gender on driving licenses.
Malik, a journalism graduate and model, was inundated with messages and phone calls congratulating her on her new role. This presented a stark contrast to the years before attitudes began to change when she struggled for survival after being disowned by her own family.
The Supreme Court announced in 2009 that hijras could get national identity cards as a 'third sex', and last year the Pakistani government issued its first passport with a transgender category.
Sana Yasir, an intersex educator and physician, said: "Pakistan is becoming more tolerant of transgender people but understanding and acceptance is not yet widespread".
Transgender icon Rimal Ali
Transgender icon Rimal Ali made her cinematic debut as one of the leads in '7 Din Mohabbat In' ('Love in 7 Days') in June 2018, shattering conservative stereotypes of Pakistan.
Ali, a versatile dancer and a popular face in Pakistan's transgender community, also featured in a music video for Pakistani band Soch in 2017.
“The first thing I wanted to be sure of when the role was offered to me was whether it makes a mockery of our community, which happens often in Bollywood and Lollywood films,” said Ali. “So I was thrilled at how wonderfully, sensitively and rather matter-of-factly the story places a transgender character. Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi (directors) made sure not to victimise the character either, which is another trap that films often fall into.”
One of the film's directors, Meenu Gaur, offered a similar perspective of the ground-breaking film. “The message in the film is that it makes no difference if you are a man or a woman, both, or whichever you prefer,” Gaur said. “And the fact this film is being released in the same year that Pakistan passed the landmark Transgender Persons Act, which gives the right to every person to self-identify, makes having Rimal in our film extra special.”
Gay rights in Pakistan
Homosexuality is considered a taboo in Pakistani society, and gay rights are close to non-existent. Pakistani men are expected to marry the woman their parents choose, and many do.
After marriage, some continue having sex with men in secret.
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Pakistan's religious authorities view homosexuality as sinful and as a mental illness that can be cured. Most clerics interpret the Quranic story of Lot as a key indicator of Allah condemning homosexual men and some scholars even suggest imposing Sharia-based punishment for "men who have sex with men".
The British introduced laws criminalising homosexual acts during the colonial era which continue to remain in effect. Sharia-based laws dating from the 1980s also lay down punishments for homosexual activity.
For many gay men in Pakistan, a heterosexual marriage is the only way to be accepted in society. But life can be even more difficult for gay women, as homosexual acts are illegal in Pakistan.
Life in Pakistan as a homosexual woman
For a homosexual woman living in Pakistan, life can be nothing short of an absolute nightmare.
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Growing up in Pakistan, one woman, Zayna, suffered physical abuse at the hands of her father who was suspicious of her having relations with a boy although she was spending time with another girl.
“My father came to my room one day and wanted to kill me and beat me like anything,” she told the Manchester Evening News. “He told me how to behave. That was the first time I felt unsafe in my own home.”
Her father died when she was in her early 20s and mother developed lung cancer. Zayna was working at an Islamic University and pursuing a PhD in Chemistry at the time and was in a relationship with another female teacher. After they were discovered, they were told to leave or else they would be reported to the police as prostitutes.
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Zayna, who was never openly gay but suspected "everybody knew and detested her for her sexual orientation" later moved to the United Kingdom.
She eventually got a work permit and enrolled in a masters course in management. Zayna has experienced the UK’s gay culture and has had multiple partners since, but says she has faced discrimination against the LGBT community here as well.
Gay Pakistanis live in constant fear of being 'outed' in the unwaveringly traditional society which is largely ignorant and intolerant of sexual minorities. A large number of gay people do what is expected of them in public and lead a secret second life.
Most gay people in Pakistan have to cope with one's own sexuality and being constantly in fear of being found out. This means their lives remains a constant battle.
What does the future look like for the LGBT community in Pakistan?
The LGBT community in Pakistan fights for survival every day in secret. Being a lesbian can be the most challenging sexual orientation in the male-dominated Pakistani society because freedom for women is already scarce.
The Pakistani constitution does not suppress the rights of gays or lesbians directly but the constitution vehemently prohibits the enactment of laws that are against the principles of Islam denying gays and lesbians the right to self-identify, the right to marry and other rights that homosexuals enjoy in some other countries of the world.
Many organisations working for gay people cannot address the subject openly and have to do so on the pretext of HIV/AIDS programmes. Some religious personalities may even kill anyone who talks about gay rights. Many homosexuals now live in countries where homosexuality is legal because it is not possible to live as an openly gay man in Pakistan.
Lesbian, gay and transgender people continue to face discrimination in all aspects of life. Hence, the future of the LGBT community in Pakistan seems rather bleak and uncompromising.