Anum Naveed, AP, Rawilpindi, Pakistan: Dressed up in elaborate, feminine outfits and artfully applied makeup, they are showered with money while dancing at all-male wedding parties. But the lives of transgender people in Pakistan are also marked by harassment, rejection and poverty.
Transgender people live in a tenuous position in conservative Pakistan, where the roles of the sexes are traditionally starkly drawn. Families often push them out of the home when they’re young, forcing many to prostitute themselves to earn a living.
One role where they are tolerated is as dancers at weddings and other celebrations at which men and women are strictly segregated. In between the dancing and showers of rupee notes, they must fend off groping from drunken guests.
“I don’t understand why people feel it is their duty to tease and taunt us,” said one transgender Pakistani who goes by the name Symbal. Many in the transgender community pick a name for themselves and do not use their last name to protect their family.
Others beg on the streets or earn money by blessing newborn babies. The blessings reflect a widespread belief in Pakistan and other South Asian nations that God answers the prayers of someone who was born underprivileged, said Iqbal Hussain, a Pakistani researcher who has studied the transgender community. But he cautioned that didn’t mean people were ready to give them equal rights.
In recent years the community has gained some government protection. A Supreme Court ruling in 2011 allowed them to get national identity cards recognizing them as a separate identity — neither male or female — and allowing them to vote. In neighboring India, the election commission ruled in 2009 that transgender people could register to vote as “other,” rather than male or female.
In other parts of the region and Muslim world, the attitude toward transgenders is also complex. In Thailand, the community is very visible and broadly tolerated. Transgender people are regularly seen on TV soap operas, working at department store cosmetics counters or popular restaurants and walking the runways in numerous transgender beauty pageants.
Many transgender Indonesians publicly wear women’s clothes and makeup and work as singers. But societal disdain still runs deep. They have taken a much lower profile in recent years, following a series of attacks by Muslim hard-liners.
In Malaysia, Muslim men who wear women’s clothes can be prosecuted in Islamic courts.
In the Arab world, there is little opportunity for transgender people to openly show their identity in public. In 2007, Kuwait made “imitating members of the opposite sex” a crime, leading to the arrest of hundreds of transgender women, Human Rights Watch said. In Iraq, extremists have targeted and killed people perceived of being gay or effeminate.