Understanding the debate on transgender law in Pakistan

Law has become bone of contention between right and left wings

Debate on the trans community’s rights has all of the sudden taken the centerstage in Pakistan.

The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act and particularly its Subsection (2) of Section (3) is the main cause of conflict between the powerful right-wing and comparatively marginalised leftists. The Subsection (2) reads: “… a transgender person shall have a right to be recognized as per his or her self-perceived gender identity.”

The Act was passed into law by parliament in May 2018. But assemblies, courts and social media have started discussing it after four years of its passage with the support of all major political parties in the National Assembly and the Senate.

Over 28,000 people have applied for gender change in NADRA since then, claim religious organisations that oppose the bill. They say the act will promote homosexuality and gay marriages against the stance of transgenders and left-wings, who term it a landmark.
The fresh debate was initiated when on September 5 the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights took on agenda the bill proposed by Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan [the only Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) senator in the Upper House of Parliament] for amendments to the Transgender Act 2018. The meeting was held under the chairmanship of Committee Chairman Senator Waleed Iqbal of the PTI. Senator Khan argued the legislation regarding the transgender community was against Quran and Sunnah and it would promote homosexuality.

The committee with the majority, however, stated they would not allow the amendment. The Ministry of Human Rights also opposed the move. It followed the Twitter trend promoted by the JI social media “amend the transgender act.” Senator Khan had earlier proposed the amendment in the senate session in November 2021, seeking creation of a medical board to determine the person’s gender applying for the sex-change procedure.
He had called for the formation of a gender reassignment board to suggest to NADRA whether a person’s gender should be reassigned. The then human rights minister Shireen Mazari had opposed it, and subsequently Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani sent the bill to the relevant standing committee for discussion.

After rejection from the standing committee on September 5, the senator separately moved an application to become party to the petitions already filed by multiple people in the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) against the law.

The court on Tuesday heard lawyers from all sides, highlighted the need for experts’ opinions and deferred the matter till the next hearing.

Also, Twitter was trending with top hashtags “Behuda bill wapis lo (take back the vulgar bill)” and “transgender bill na manzor (transgender bill unaccepted)” with the backing of religious parties mainly the JI and Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) – the pan-Islamist religious party and hardliner Brelvi-Sunni outfit, respectively.

On the other hand, Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Interfaith Harmony Hafiz Muhammad Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi on Monday called for forwarding the Transgender Rights Bill to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) for review. In a statement, he said all religious organizations had apprehensions about certain provisions of the bill and they should be addressed by taking the CII on board as per the existing mechanism.

Interestingly, CII Chairman Dr. Qibla Ayaz in a statement on January 2018 declared that several provisions of the bill were illegal as well as insufficient to protect the rights of the transgender community. Furthermore, MPA of Pakistan Rah-e-Haq Party – the political face of banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan – in Punjab Assembly Moavia Azam also submitted a resolution against the bill before the assembly.

Iftikhar Alam is a correspondent writing on religion, politics, agriculture, and energy. He takes people on a rich journey through the culture of Punjab. He tweets @imiftikharalam and can be reached at iftikharalam@live.com.