Pakistan's transgender community says faced pushback at general election

MUMBAI/LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pakistan’s transgender community faced pushback at the country’s general election on Wednesday as five transgender candidates failed to win office and transgender observers and voters were blocked from polling stations, campaigners said.

The transgender community had hoped the July 25 ballot would be a step towards greater acceptance after 13 transgender candidates filed papers to run in the election and the Election Commission hired transgender observers for the first time.

While Pakistan is deeply conservative and homosexuality is illegal, the country has approved laws giving transgender people better rights than in many other nations including issuing its first passport with a transgender category last year.

However transgender turnout remained low at Wednesday’s poll and observers faced difficult work environments which the All Pakistan Transgender Election Network blamed on the Election Commission’s “failure to understand the unique obstacles”.

The Election Commission of Pakistan did not respond to a request for comment.

Transgender observer Farzana Riaz said she and about 25 other colleagues hired to make sure polling station staff treated disabled and women voters with care were not allowed inside polling stations despite having official identification.

“We, as observers, were given identity cards by the election commission, but we were still not allowed inside,” Riaz told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Riaz said no transgender people were allowed to vote in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa - one of Pakistan’s four provinces where there was a spate of transgender attacks in 2016 - because their identity cards did not match the gender they presented as.

“But we do not wish to just sit back. We want to participate in the electoral process. This is our democratic right,” said Riaz after the election was won by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), or Pakistan Movement for Justice.

Transgender rights became prominent in Pakistan in 2009 when the Supreme Court ruled transgender people could get national identity cards as a “third sex”.

The transgender community was counted in the national census for the first time last year, recording 10,418 in a population of about 207 million although many said this was too low. Charity Trans Action Pakistan estimates there are at least half a million transgender people in the country.

Qamar Naseem, founded of the transgender organization Blue Veins that trained the election observers, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the country needed better education on transgender people to improve attitudes towards the community.

“The struggle has to continue, the learning has to continue and society has to learn to accept the transgender community,” Naseem said.