If the river goes that way, you don't have to turn it around.
– Hina's Therapist
‘Boy who likes to dress as a girl’ - those were the words ninth-grader Hina (pronouns ‘they’/ ‘them’) typed into their internet search years ago. Feeling alone and misunderstood in their conservative and traditional family upbringing, Hina was looking for answers. When they saw online that there were other people worldwide with the same questions and struggle regarding their gender identity but also ones living their true self as LGBTIQ1 , Hina felt more understood. They were lucky enough to find a therapist in Pakistan who was also an LGBTIQ researcher and told them: ‘If the river goes that way, you don't have to turn it around’ This helped Hina come to terms with their own identity: being non-binary2.
‘I like to dress as a woman, but also wear clothing which is interpreted as men’s’, explains Hina. ‘I don't care if people address me with male or female pronouns or if they call me by my given or my chosen name.’ Non-binary is an identity which is still foreign to many Pakistanis. Even in the trans community being accepted as non-binary is not easy. Several houses where transwomen live together do not welcome other identities. ‘The khawaja sara3 culture can be highly toxic’, says Hina. But they were lucky to find a guru and a house who accepted them as who they are and become part of the NGO Sub Rang Society, an organisation which offers support to sexual and gender minorities in Pakistan and aims to raise awareness and erase stigmata the community faces.
The Beginning of a Long-term Cooperation
Wanting to learn from and exchange experience with international LGBTIQ organisations, Hina took part in the CCP Fellowships in 2019 and worked with the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany (LSVD) in Cologne. During their Fellowship, Hina met Danijel Cubelic at a CCP workshop on gender and diversity. Cubelic is currently Head of the Office of Equal Opportunities of the City of Heidelberg and also Vice-President of the European Coalition of Cities against Racism (ECCAR).
With the support of a CCP Synergy funding, members of Sub Rang Society and ECCAR met online and on-site in Heidelberg during the Trans* Action Weeks in November 2021. Aim of the collaboration was to exchange knowledge, raise awareness for trans rights on a political level and present the situation of LGBTIQ in Pakistan to a wider audience. The visit by Hina and fellow activist Kami Sid, founder of Sub Rang Society, seems to have just been the starting point of a long-term cooperation with ideas for dance workshops, therapeutic support, and more inclusivity on the way.
People don’t respect you or tell you that you are alright.
Progressive or Conservative? The Paradox
Though Pakistan is known as a conservative country, in 2018, the parliament passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act. This bill has been called ‘a landmark’ and ‘one of the world's most progressive trans rights bills’. It allows people to choose their gender and makes it possible to have that gender officially stated in their ID card. The bill also prohibits several forms of discrimination - for example in schools and at work. It allows inheritance for transgender people and enables them to run for public office. Additionally, in July 2021 Pakistan opened the first state-funded school for transgender women.
Despite these actions, discrimination of transgender people is still evident in various parts of social life including the healthcare system, the workplace, public bathrooms as well as during the interaction with law enforcement agencies. Kami Sid says: ’I identify as a transgender woman since the age of 22. In my experience, it's very hard to be a transgender person in Pakistan because people don't give you your own space. People don’t respect you or tell you that you are alright.’
Awareness, Advocacy, Economic Empowerment
‘Sub Rang’ means ‘all colours’. Since 2016 the team promotes the rights of the LGBTIQ community in Pakistan with a special focus on transgender people. Prior to founding Sub Rang Society, Kami Sid worked with the Global Funds HIV-AIDS programme, but she realised that her community needed more work on human rights, mental health, and wellbeing. Sub Rang Society's approach to strengthen the transgender community has three main components: Awareness, advocacy, and economic empowerment. An example for that work is the establishment of safe spaces and ‘Solidarity Circles’, where LGBTIQ people have the chance to communicate freely and support each other. Sub Rang Society also supports transgender people in the process of finding jobs and businesses in creating safe spaces for their transgender employees.
I want to see transgender people in the social and economic sector so one of the main components is economic empowerment.
– Kami Sid
With civil society organisations such as Sub Rang Society continuously fighting for the rights of transgender people, progressive bills being passed and the rights of transgender people slowly attracting more interest from the general public, the issue has come a long way. But as Kami Sid says: ’We need more. We need more people. We need more of the biggest organisation that can support us in other countries because we really need to educate about trans rights in our country. We need to push our government to be very inclusive within the assembly, within the parliament, within their own department. We need to advocate with the government and with the rest of society as well.’