For the vast majority in Pakistan, the third gender is an unknown. Hijras/eunuchs, transsexuals, transvestites and hermaphrodites continue to live on the social periphery, confined within their own communities and excluded from ordinary civic and social life. Our interaction with them is limited to a curious glance from behind a car-window, a hurried exchange of meagre charity at a traffic light or distant viewing of a celebratory routine at a wedding or a child’s birth. We remain unaware of their struggles or their little victories and unaffected by their social, economic and physical oppression.
A brutal attack on a transgender female in Peshawar and the denial of medical treatment to her by a leading government hospital jolts us into recognising our bigotry and cruelty towards the third gender. We are told that Alesha was just one of several casualties of hate crimes against transgender persons that are ordinarily brushed aside without consequence. Just as our collective conscience settles into its usual inertia, a little known religious organisation in Lahore picks up the subject of transgender rights. Islam enjoins respectful and fair treatment of transgender persons, declares the Tanzeem Ittehad-e-Ummat Pakistan. The Tanzeem goes on to rule, more controversially, that a marriage between a transsexual-male with visible signs of being female and a transsexual-female with visible signs of being male is permissible in Islam. The fatwa draws attention across foreign media and evokes curiosity amongst some, confusion and disapproval amongst others. Some celebrate the edict as a victory; others criticise its ambiguity or deem it largely irrelevant in our socio-legal landscape. The immediate consequence: a re-opening of the discussion on transgender rights.