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“A Dog’s Life Has More Value Than Mine” Exploring Attitudes Towards Transgender People in Pakistan

CW: This article discusses topics of sexual violence, transphobia and murder which could be distressing to some readers.

From public outcry to an Oscar nomination: the recent controversy surrounding the critically acclaimed Pakistani LGBT film "Joyland" has triggered a wave of discourse surrounding hostility towards Pakistan’s transgender community. Pakistan’s transgender community is often referred to as the people the trans movement forgot since people of colour are often neglected by the mainstream media. Therefore, it is vital to understand and discuss the history of Pakistan’s transgender community, day-to-day discrimination, societal progression and the power of film in challenging attitudes.

Ostracised and demonised

A 2-year prison sentence. The crime? Not theft, assault or fraud but for choosing to live as a transgender person in Pakistan. Historically, due to colonial British notions of gender binaries and deep-rooted Pakistani cultural taboos, transgender people were outlawed, same-gender relationships were criminalised, and cross-dressing became a punishable offense for men, thus systematising gender norms in Pakistan.

Today, Pakistan is still plagued with transphobia. A trans activist in put it simply when she spoke to DW - "Here, a dog's life has more value than mine". Transgender people become increasingly vulnerable since they are often disowned by their families, face widespread systemic discrimination in the workplace and become ineligible for government support. Therefore, they most often resort to street begging and sex work to make ends meet, thus exposing them to violence and exploitation.

It is not uncommon for the transgender community to experience death threats, “honour” killings, rape, blackmail, sexual harassment and acid attack. It is difficult to obtain exact figures as most of these crimes go unreported, however, Pakistan’s Trans-Action Alliance reported that in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in 2015, 91 transgender women were murdered and 2,000 hate crimes against the transgender community were registered. This brutality can also contribute to mental health disorders and trauma among transgender people, exacerbating the difficulties they confront in their everyday life.

An example of where violence met systemic discrimination is the death of a 23-year-old trans activist in 2016. Horrifically, she was shot six times by a mob, then died in the hospital after medical staff jeered and mulled over which gender ward to treat her in.

Optimism and progression

Despite ample hostility, Pakistan’s transgender continues to fight for a more just and equitable future. A huge victory for the community was the 2018 Transgender Persons Protection of Rights Act which guaranteed basic rights for transgender citizens and outlawed discrimination. A trans activist told Reuters "I feel as if an orphan has finally now found shelter", demonstrating the life-changing nature of the law. Especially since the act gives transgender Pakistanis fundamental rights such as employment, inheritance, assembly voting, holding public office and property. A major milestone achieved by the Act was that the government also launched medical and educational safe spaces, rid of harassment. However, the 2022 Ministry of Human Rights report founded data from 36 ministries demonstrated that the Act’s employment quota had not been achieved. This resulted in a lack of distrust and let down from Pakistan’s transgender community.

Despite some social progress, some trans activists consider this "only a battle half won" as public opinion and attitude is arguably still unchanged. However, there is perhaps still hope for societal progression due to the rise of marches and campaigns. For instance, Sindh Moorat March received global attention for public awareness spread about the plight of Pakistan’s transgender community. Especially since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Jr, a member of a famous political Pakistani family, was heard chanting “Long live the transgender community” in support.

The joys of “Joyland”

A 5-star rating, Cannes Film Festival recognition and Pakistan’s first entry to be shortlisted for an Oscar. In 2022, the Pakistani film "Joyland" was released and received global praise, however, it was met with a polar opposite reaction from some of Pakistan’s public – outrage. But why? The film explores the romantic relationship between ‘Haider’ and ‘Biba’- a dancer and transgender woman.

Because of this, Pakistan's censor board said the movie had "highly objectionable material" after religious groups accused the movie of promoting homosexuality. So, it was banned.

This resulted in a battleground of Twitter comments including the trending #ReleaseJoyland and #BanJoyland. Some Pakistanis say the ban on the movie would only justify discrimination against the transgender community whilst others argued other Pakistani communities were more deserving of global recognition.

The film garnered ample support from celebrities, increasing its popularity. Human rights activist Malala Yousafzai condemned the ban and perfectly stated:

“Joyland” is not activism posing as art; it doesn’t argue for a particular point of view or issue a call to action. “Joyland” is also a love letter to Pakistan, to its culture, food, fashion and, most of all, its people. How tragic that a film created by and for Pakistanis is now banned from our screens because of claims that it does not “represent our way of life” or “portrays a negative image of our country.” The opposite is true — the film reflects reality for millions of ordinary Pakistanis, people who yearn for freedom and fulfillment, people who create moments of joy every day for those they love.

After a flood of public support, the ban was ultimately reversed. Salman Sufi, Head of Government Strategic Reforms tweeted: “Freedom of speech is a fundamental right & should be nourished within ambits of the law.” – a beacon of hope for Pakistan’s minorities' efforts towards equality.

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