In a heartening development in the fight for transgender rights, the moorat and khwajasira* community organized a march and rally in Karachi to protest the upsurge in attacks. Held on November 20, the Transgender Day of Remembrance, it was attended by hundreds of khwajasira/moorat folks and allies, ministers, and artists. The march uplifted the cry of “Zan Zindagi Azadi,” in solidarity with women and femmes around the world (see the links below to articles covering the march).
A couple of reasons why this is important: It is a first for the Pakistani khwajasira/moorat folks to hold such a public and open rally/march in the center of a major city. Frere Hall in Karachi is the venue of choice for many progressive activist events. Of course, there have been protests in front of the press club in various cities and outside government offices, but never anything on this scale.
The march was a part of a strategy of claiming public space. This march was in response to the violence being whipped up by elite gatekeepers (especially a famous fashion designer) and religious bigots lead by the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI, an Islamist political party). Leaders in the community have pointed out that the JI is using the playbook of the right in the west to attack vulnerable populations for scoring political points. They say that the JI is targeting them to rile up support in the upcoming elections.
On social media, there is a recent proliferation of anti LGBTQ propaganda. The assertion is that visible LGBTQI leaders, in league with “the west” and non-profit organizations, which are considered agents of the west, are importing the LGBTQI agenda and corrupting the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The pathbreaking Trangender Persons’ Rights Bill, passed in 2018, is now being attacked by JI allied politicians and followers. Not only is it being targeted for amendment in the National Assembly, there is also a malicious hate mongering propaganda campaign against it spreading lies such as the claim that it legalizes same sex marriages. Another ridiculous claim is that the Bill allows women to change their ID cards to say male and men can change it to say female.
The truth is that the Bill only allows a self-identified transgender person to change their original ID gender to X. This is a further solidification of the inclusion of a third gender for official documents, such as passports and national ID cards, passed in 2009. An immensely important part of this Bill is the legal precedent for gender self-identification without any medical or psychological examination. This Bill was drafted in consultation with a wide array of people, but primarily by transgender activists and scholars. All bills are required to be reviewed by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) before they become law to ensure that they are in compliance with Islamic law. It was unanimously passed by the CII.
The JI is now attacking the Bill despite the approval of the CII years ago. It is clearly a smear campaign to play on the people’s national and religious vulnerabilities. On another front, certain influencers and entrepreneurs have also been attacking the Bill based on normalized heteronormative distrust of transgender and non-binary folks. They assert that of course they are with the khwajasirah community, but not everyone who says they are one is actually one. A “true” khwajasira is an intersex person, born with biological differences. Transgender people, they say, are just deviants who want to change their gender and engage in illicit sexual behavior. There are variations of such “definitions” and charges against the khwajasira/moorat community. And that people should have to prove that they are intersex to be called khwajasira. This plays right into the tropes of deviant, ensnaring, criminal, sexually promiscuous LGBTQI people.
The demands of the march organizers are centered on ensuring and safeguarding civil and human rights of the khwajasira community. As the accompanying images illustrate, there were twelve demands put forward by the organizers. Some seek implementation of the laws and affirmative action already on the books. Some demand a quota of reserved seats in government bodies for transgender representatives. Others demand education and training to combat discrimination, including the addition of information about the history and culture of khwajasira people in the national curriculum. And there are several that demand criminalization or more severe penalties of acts such as abandonment of a transgender child, housing discrimination, transphobia and hate speech. The list of demands illustrates the urgency of the situation by targeting all mechanisms that can possibly assist in gaining some relief. While the reliance on the “criminal justice” system and the carceral logic of the state seems at odds with the struggles of the khwajasira community, it is certainly a plea for protection from incessant violence. They are asking the state to stop treating them as disposable subjects who can be abused without consequence.
The beauty of the pushback against this rhetoric is that it connects capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, and narrow religiosity as the pillars of heteronormative hate. The khwajasira/moorat community’s response has been a reclaiming and reasserting of their indigeneity. While haranguing people about the “western” threat of LGBTQI people, the rightwing mullahs and politicians act as if there were no gender variant folks native to their lands. The khwajasira have been reminding us all that their history is at least four thousand years old and they have their own language, spirituality, and culture. Furthermore, they are also calling us to reclaim our indigeneity, which includes more expansive norms of gender and sexuality, as well as a deep spirituality transcendent of organized religion.
The ferociousness of this pushback is a thing of beauty. They are turning the false narratives on their heads, stating that we are not the agents of the western agenda, we are indigenous to this land. We have lived here for thousands of years. You, in your colonial mindset and false religiosity are the agents of the western colonizers and followers of the western right wing. You are the ones who do not belong in this land. You should leave, not us. They are also responding to the gender policing by declaring that no one has any business looking into anyone’s private parts. And on a more combative level, they are asking for the men and women maligning them to prove that they are indeed the gender they proclaim, applying the same standard to themselves.
On social media and tv channels there have been many public debates between the folks pushing hate and prejudice for the khwajasira community and it is breath taking to watch as khwajasira leaders and scholars take on the rhetoric of the conservative religious right. In a country where the blasphemy law can be used against anyone to silence and prosecute them, where mobs lynch people considered blasphemous, the khwajasira community is showing us how to stand tall and proclaim the truth. They openly tell the mullahs that they cannot define their religion for them. Here is a video of Shahzadi Rai, a khwajasira woman leader, going to a press conference called by the JI and other religious leaders and addressing them to educate them and defend her community. (https://fb.watch/g_DIm0sAxV/); see captions for an English translation. They remind their compatriots that Islam is not in danger, nor Pakistan, but the rightwing forces are. They tell the truth about the JI using the tactics of the American rightwing forces and attacking the khwajasira community in a misguided bid to become relevant. The JI indeed has about 6 seats combined in the national and provincial assemblies.
The khwajasira community is also working with allies, such as trans-inclusive feminists, the organizers of the annual Aurat (Women) March on International Working Women’s Day, workers’ rights, and civil rights groups. The Progressive Students Federation, a major organizer of the annual Student Solidarity March being held in more than ten cities across Pakistan, has declared solidarity and support for the khwajasira community. In their quest for democratic rights and the right to form student unions they affirm the rights of gender, religious, and ethnic minorities. This solidarity forming between the various progressive and left forces in Pakistan is a sign of hope. It is, perhaps, an indicator that a new political force is in formation.
*Moorat and khwajasira are terms used by the South Asian communities of transgender, intersex, no-binary folks. These are terms used for a community identification, in addition to gender. They consider themselves as continuators of a rich and ancient indigenous culture and history.