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Pakistan’s Minorities, Transgender hit the glass Ceiling as Society Opens up

Perfectly dressed in full makeup, a transgender prepares to read the script from a teleprompter in a nice and cool TV studio for a live bulletin. Sweating under a sizzling sun at 40°C, a Sikh girl holds a microphone with channel’s logo for her live beeper. Eyes lit-up, each stands tall and looks determined to lift their respective communities out of oblivion to be a more pronounced part of the mainstream flow in Pakistan.

In a first, two private TV news networks have employed a transgender and a Sikh girl as a newscaster and a reporter respectively. While another private news channel hired first-ever Sikh newscaster, many consider these steps as hints to expanding diversity in media and society’s will to fight discrimination for coexistence.

Though ethnic, religious and sexual minorities in Pakistan have started to breathe relatively easy thanks to a slow but consistent transformation in national idiosyncrasies, there is much ground to cover. With all the efforts to remove intolerance from Pakistani society, there still exist remnants of an extreme mindset rendering harm not just to minorities but to Pakistan’s image too.

Still, there are challenges facing the minorities such as forced conversions of Hindu community in remote districts like Umerkot and Tharparkar in Sindh province. Hindu girls and young women, mostly those belonging to the scheduled castes — Bheel, Meghwar, and Kohli, are allegedly converted to Islam forcibly to marry off to Muslim men. In late 2017, a 16-year-old girl Ravita Meghwar in Tharparkar district was converted and married off to a Muslim.

The Christian communities in Punjab also faced a threat of violence on charges of alleged blasphemy. Violent mobs burnt Christian localities in Toba Tek Singh and Lahore districts in 2009 and 2013 respectively on charges of alleged desecration. A Christian couple was burnt alive in Kot Radha Kishan in the outskirts of Lahore on charges of alleged blasphemy in late 2014.

However, in a unique incident, enraged protesters after Lahore church bombings in early 2015 publicly burnt alive two Muslim suspects and kept desecrating their bodies for hours on a city’s major thoroughfare.

Armed gunmen attacked an Ahmadi worship place in Lahore killing nearly 70 worshipers in a worst ever attack yet on the fringe community in May 2010, while there are a few more isolated examples of violence against Ahmadis in the country.

As recently as on September 8, 2018, a transgender was allegedly burnt alive for resisting a ‘rape attempt’ in a central Punjab district of Sahiwal.

The extremist threat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is real, though the spate of terrorism has largely been controlled. In May this year, an unidentified gunman killed a 52-year-old Sikh social activist, Charanjit Singh, inside his shop in a blind murder in the outskirts of Peshawar.

Instant public reaction and condemnation pouring in from all strata immediately after such incidents reflect a nation’s resolve towards establishing a more humane society, gradually discouraging the perpetrators of such crimes against humanity.

Struggle within and without

The doors of opportunities in Pakistan’s media are opening up for religious and sexual minorities to the extent that they become front faces of the media.

“Pakistan’s media has come of age as it now embraces talented individuals belonging to minority and transgender communities,” says Sheraz Hasnat, Bureau Chief at Hum News Lahore, while welcoming Sikh female reporter on board at channel’s Peshawar station.

Manmeet Kaur is over the moon as she expresses emotions to be a maiden Sikh female reporter in the country. “I have been very fortunate to get a huge platform first up,” says the 24-year-old, who obtained Master’s degree in Social Sciences from Jinnah College for Women, Peshawar, a city unduly portrayed as ultra-conservative.

Educated women comprised just 2 percent of the Sikh population in Pakistan, she says, explaining, “Most Sikh girls prefer to sit at homes after completing their studies.” Kaur decided to lead her fellow Sikh girls by example.

“Working as a journalist sends a message to the world that Pakistan is not just safe but also a land of opportunities for minorities to excel in their fields of expertise,” says Manmeet Kaur, while scrolling her twitter feed.

Harmeet Singh, who is a resident of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province’s Chakesar city, has joined the Public News channel as country’s first male Sikh newscaster.

Members of minority communities including Sikh, Hindu, Christians and Ahmadis, considered persecuted, have been part of the mainstream media all along but at the desk as sub-editors, producers and assignment managers. Being employed as reporters and photographers, they are becoming the faces of the media network they represent.

Unlike politics, the media has been no stranger to fringe communities including religious minorities. There are many examples of members of minority communities playing their role in media. Late Ardeshir Cowasjee, a Parsi based in Karachi, used to write columns regularly in Dawn – country’s oldest English daily newspaper. Fareshteh Gati, a female journalist belonging to the Parsi community, is a celebrated sports writer, who worked for The News among others.

A Karachi-based Hindu journalist Amar Guriro served in several national and international digital and broadcast media outlets including country’s premier news channel Geo News. Heera Laal, another Hindu, served as a photographer for The News in Islamabad. A female Christian journalist Gonila Gill, based in Lahore, has worked as a reporter for several Urdu newspapers and digital media.

Breaking stereotypes

Yet, against all these odds, some are breaking the ceiling like Almas Bobby, a shemale rights’ activist, who has become a familiar face in Pakistani media. It encouraged the talented individuals from the sexual minority to join the media.

A local TV channel “Koh-i-Noor” takes a giant leap and inducted a 21-year-old Marvia Malik as country’s maiden transgender television newscaster. Having worked as a make-up artist and then a fashion model, she immediately filled the vacancy thrown her way.

Eunuch known as “hijra” in Urdu or khusra, a slang word in a colloquial language, are terms used to identify castrated, transsexuals, hermaphrodites and transvestites. However, preferring to be known as “khawaja sara”, they have faced discrimination and ridicule for centuries. Traditionally, they earn a living as dancers, circus performers, sex workers, and beggars. They bury their dead in a clandestine manner. It is believed that their curses are particularly effective, thus they must not be annoyed. Yet, not many really get deterred.

“I got a tremendous response from a cross-section of society by way of love and felicitations. It does not just show a positive change in public attitude towards transgender but it highlights Pakistan’s soft image all over the world,” says Marvia Malik.

“My parents used to hit me for pursuing my education and eventually disowned me,” says Marvia, who obtained Bachelors’ degree with Journalism as the main subject from University of the Punjab, Lahore. She said the majority of transgenders prefer dancing at marriage functions and in private ceremonies to earn a living if not begging in the streets. “I shall do whatever in my capacity to spur change in transgender community’s fortunes,” she vows.

Transgender people, holding ID cards, not just can cast votes but may even contest elections on main seats for national and provincial assemblies in Pakistan.

Four transgender persons contested in the General Elections held on July 25 from the platform of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Gulalai) – a party formed be Ayesha Gulalai, a dissident member of Pakistan’s current ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). In 2013 general elections too, a 28-year-old transgender Naina Lal had contested election from Punjab’s Sargodha district.

The silver lining in the dark cloud

Punjab Assembly, the largest provincial legislature of Pakistan, passed “The Anand Karaj Act 2017” to legalize registration of Sikh marriages to help resolves issues like divorce, inheritance, polygamy, etc. Considering the highest Sikh population in India and Britain respectively, Pakistan becomes the first country to legislate registration of Sikh marriages.

In a similar move, Sindh Assembly enacted “Hindu Marriage Amendment Bill, 2018” to register Hindu marriages and allowing widowed and divorced women a second marriage.

Krishna Kumari Kohli from the remote village of Dhana Gam in Nagarparkar, Tharparkar, has become country’s first Hindu Dalit female member of the Senate of Pakistan.

Elected from Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP) platform, Krishna, 39, used to serve as a bonded laborer and faced landlord’s captivity for three years. Undeterred by hardships, the member of the untouchable caste pursued her education and obtained a degree in Sociology from the University of Sindh. Determined to work for the welfare of women and marginalized segments, she becomes the voice of the voiceless.

With regard to protecting its transgender community, Pakistan recognizes transgender as the third gender following the Supreme Court’s historic judgment in 2012. National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) issues ID cards to transgender with original gender identity. However, after complaints, Pakistan’s top jury is presently out on the legislation’s on-ground implementation. Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar also announced to employ two transgender in Supreme Court to give recognition to the marginalized community.

Of late, harassment of transgender people is becoming a major issue for the politicians. Therefore, in a recent development, Pakistan passed a law “The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act” to ban abuse and discrimination against transgender people.

“The minorities and transgender community in Pakistan are still vulnerable to harm despite the change in attitudes and progress towards neutralizing the hate,” says IA Rehman, a veteran rights activist and a Director of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

He says that a Sikh girl and a transgender joining the media or a Hindu Dalit woman becoming a Senator are welcoming signs but that does not make religious and sexual minorities safe. “The poor are more vulnerable than the rich, women feel more insecure than men, and the minorities feel more unsafe than their Muslims in Pakistan. The bigger picture is still blurred with bouts of hate and violence,” he explains.

“Although the situation in Pakistan not as bad as in India where Muslims are being lynched publicly, the government of Pakistan has not been able to protect its minorities either,” he maintains.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s act of removing renowned economist Atif Mian, belonging to Ahmadi community, from Economic Advisory Council on the basis of his faith following a strong reaction from the right wing is reflective of a wedge between liberals and conservative elements in the society.

Regardless of how Pakistan has been stereotyped over the past two decades, the people have been acting for their own good. The society’s resilience to alien influences has seemingly gotten stronger and multifaceted.

Although Pakistan’s extremist portrayal is far too exaggerated, the country has a long way to go to solidify its claims of giving equal status to sexual and minority communities. Yet, the situation is not the same as it used to be during the last two decades vis-a-vis discrimination against fringe communities with a lot of silver linings on the country’s horizon in recent times.

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