Human rights groups and transgender activists are condemning a Pakistani religious court’s decision to strike down key parts of a transgender rights bill almost five years after parliament passed it.
Hailed as among the more progressive laws on transgender rights globally by the International Commission of Jurists, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018 gave transgender people in Pakistan the right to choose their gender identity as they perceived it themselves and to change it on previously issued government documents.
On Friday, the Federal Shariat Court declared those provisions to be in contradiction with Islam, the official religion of Pakistan.
The religious court stated that the “gender of a person must conform to the biological sex of a person,” not their feelings or self-perception.
“They have declared the basis of our existence, illegal,” said Nayyab Ali, a transgender community activist who was one of the respondents in the case.
Calling the verdict “a blow to the rights of the already beleaguered,” Amnesty International, in a statement, urged the Pakistani government to take immediate action to stop “the reversal of essential protections.”
The transgender community in Pakistan routinely faces discrimination. Often abandoned by families and relegated to mostly begging on the streets or dancing at parties to make money, trans women in particular face the threat of sexual assault, kidnapping and murder.
According to data collected by the International Commission of Jurists and its partner organizations, at least 20 transgender people were killed in Pakistan in 2021.
‘A threat to the family system’
Pakistan’s 2018 law defines transgender as anyone with a mixture of male and female genital features or ambiguous genitalia, a person assigned male at birth but who has undergone castration, or any person whose gender identity or expression differ from their assigned sex at birth.
The Federal Shariat Court declared that while Islam acknowledges the existence of people born with mixed or ambiguous genitalia and allows castration in “exceptional cases…as advised by expert medical professionals in order to cure [a] certain disease,” the religion does not allow castration to change gender or the act of choosing one’s own gender.
It said that many religious obligations depended on the biological sex of a person and could not be based on or changed depending on the innermost feelings of an individual.
Speaking to VOA, Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan, a member of the conservative political party Jamat-e-Islami, who has been leading the charge against the 2018 law, hailed the verdict.
“This law was … a threat to the family system, a threat to our values and traditions. It was a cultural invasion,” Khan said.
The court said it feared that the 2018 law could lead to crimes such as sexual molestation, assault and rape against women because it “makes it easy for a biological male to get access to the exclusive spaces and gatherings of females in the disguise of a “transgender woman.”
Some in the transgender community, such as rights activist Almas Bobby, also support the religious court’s decision.
One of the petitioners in the case against the transgender law, Bobby, like other critics, alleged that it allowed people to change gender “on a whim” and promoted homosexuality, which is illegal in Pakistan.
“Normal, healthy men who are capable of marrying [having heterosexual relations] and are married, too, should stay with their wife and kids,” said Bobby.
‘Erasure of an entire demographic’
Only a decade ago, in 2012, Pakistan’s top court ruled that transgender people have the same rights as all other citizens and ordered that a “third gender” category be added to national identity cards.
That ruling paved the way for the 2018 legislation, which expressly prohibited discrimination against transgender people in educational institutions, workplaces and health care, and it guaranteed them a share in inheritance.
Pakistan follows the Islamic system of inheritance, which divides assets among descendants based on their gender. Men get twice as much as women. The court struck down the act’s stipulation that a person identifying as a trans man would also get twice as much as a trans woman.
The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan expressed dismay over the ruling.
“This move seeks erasure of an entire demographic and its fundamental rights,” the commission said on Twitter. It said the ruling by the religious court undermines the will of parliament, and the commission is hopeful the top court will overturn it.
Senator Khan told VOA he hopes the government will not approach the Supreme Court and instead will approve a separate bill he introduced in parliament to protect the rights of those born with ambiguous genitalia.
Responding to VOA, the Human Rights Ministry said it accepted the ruling of the religious court. It said the senate’s Standing Committee on Human Rights was already considering amendments proposed by some legislators to the transgender law and will include the court’s verdict in the discussions.
Transgender rights activist Ali told VOA she plans to appeal to the Supreme Court’s special bench that reviews the decisions made by the Federal Shariat Court.
If the top court accepts the appeal, action on the religious court’s ruling would be paused until the Supreme Court’s special bench reaches a decision.
Source : VOA