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Pakistan: Reactionary Right secures victory against transgender rights

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In a landmark defeat for sexually oppressed people’s rights, the religious court of Pakistan has ruled that transgender people cannot change their gender at will. This is a reversal of the partial gains made for the protection of transgender people in Pakistan through the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018 as the court has also declared certain clauses of the law as against Shariah.

This comes at a time when democratic rights are in general under attack in Pakistan, with hundreds of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf supporters being termed “terrorists” for attacking military installations on May 9. They will be tried under the Army Act and Official Secrets Act, which means they will be tried in military courts instead of civilian courts.

Pakistan is an Islamic republic and the Federal Shariah Court is a constitutional body that has the power to examine and determine whether the laws of the country comply with Shariah. This body was established during the military dictatorship of Gen Ziaul Haq. Haq’s name has gone down in history for the draconian ordinances his regime orchestrated against democratic rights, women’s rights, and particularly the Hudood Ordinances. Now, his legacy has been used by the reactionary Right, both religious and liberal, in Pakistan to clamp down on the rights of an extremely oppressed community.

The existing law was not particularly progressive but was still a step forward and as socialists we would be bound to defend even the minimal gains it provided. For instance, the law did not grant transwomen or transmen the right to identify as women or men, but it did grant them the right to self-identify as a third gender “X” as opposed to the gender ascribed to them at birth. For instance, a person ascribed the male sex at birth could identify as Female in the category X, which symbolizes the third sex in Pakistan. This applied to identification documents. The X classification was especially created for the trans community on the order of the Supreme Court in 2009. The law also prohibited discrimination against a transgender person at educational institutions, employment, trade, and healthcare, etc. It also prohibited harassment of transgender people both within and outside the home on the basis of “their sex, gender identity and/or gender expression”. It obligated the government to establish protection centres and safe houses, and provide medical facilities, psychological care, counselling and adult education.

While the religious court has annulled only one clause and one sub-clause of the Act, it will have repercussions on every aspect of life for transgender people. The annulled clause 2(f) defined “gender identity” as “a person’s innermost and individual sense of self as male, female or a blend of both or neither; that can correspond or not to the sex assigned at birth”. This is a crucial clause of the law that allows transgender people to identify as transmen or transwomen on their identity documents instead of man in the case of transwomen or woman in the case of transmen. The other annulled sub-clause, 2(n)(iii) defined a transgender person as “a Transgender Man, Transgender Woman, KhawajaSira or any person whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the social norms and cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at the time of their birth”. This means that the definition of a transgender person has now been limited to sub-clause 2(n)(i) (which defines a transgender person as “Intersex (Khunsa) with mixture of male and female genital features or congenital ambiguities”) and 2(n)(ii) (which defines a transgender person as “Eunuch assigned male at birth, but undergoes genital excision or castration). This means that people who do not have castrated or ambiguous genitalia can no longer categorise themselves as transgender. Research has shown how severe the impact of forcing people into a gender that they do not identify as can be, with suicide being the most extreme response to an unfulfilling and untruthful life.

This reversal of minimal gains made under the existing law comes at the behest of a strange combination of the clergy and liberal intelligentsia. On the one hand, we have the clerical Right represented by the likes of well-known misogynist hypocrite, Orya Maqbool Jan, Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan of the reactionary right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami (henceforth referred to as JI), and some others from the equally if not more reactionary Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Pakistan-Fazl (henceforth JUI-F). Naturally, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf had to jump on the bandwagon of reaction as well. Its leaders joined this vicious, hateful campaign in legislative assemblies, which is only natural given the misogynist hate that the chairman of the party and former prime minister Imran Khan harbours in his heart. On the other hand, stand the bigots of upper and middle-class intelligentsia, represented by the very despicable luxury fashion owner Maria B. It would have suited her well to continue making her selfie videos with her camera sat on her ceiling on issues pertaining to women of her class such as how to torture domestic servants. Sadly, she extended her scope and did her best to be a Pakistani wannabe replica of JK Rowling with a dash of modern liberal Islamic jargon to make it palatable for a middle-class Pakistani support base.

What is common in these two sides of the reactionary coin is the anxiety that the existing law would allow homosexual people to marry the person they love and for transgender people to get gender-reassignment treatments and men would become women and women would become men. It is bizarre to imagine that in a country as sexist as Pakistan, a man wanting to give up more rights as a man in inheritance and become a transwoman. What would he gain out of that? Despite all anti-discrimination laws, most transwomen in Pakistan are limited to three professions: dancing, begging and sex work. All three professions are legally unprotected and open opportunities for men to harass, rape and, whenever convenient, also kill these transwomen at the slightest damage to their egos. But transwomen are forced to choose from these professions to feed themselves and stay alive. The real anxiety stems from the prospect of a person ascribed the female sex at birth changing their gender to that of “X” Male.

Conservative parties as the JI and JUI-F consist of elements that have historically contained proto-fascist tendencies. These are also known for their extremely patriarchal and regressive views on women. The JI played a pivotal role in the draconian laws introduced by the military dictator Ziaul Haq. The JUI-F, whose leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman was quite recently a hero of the reformist and liberal Left of Pakistan when the ruling coalition of the Pakistan Democracy Movement was launched in opposition to Imran Khan, carries a record of smearing black paint on any women’s faces displayed in public advertisements.

Champions of the attacks against transgender rights are all representative of bourgeois ideology. The real anxieties lie in the threat to the bourgeois family and the threat to men’s dominant position in the bourgeois family system that transgender people’s mere existence poses. The arguments are no different from the ones made by Republican and Evangelical conservatives in the US or the AfD in Germany. The narrative is centred on questions pertaining to children, sexual expression, threats to religion and family form, and most importantly, inheritance of property. If a person ascribed the female sex at birth goes on to become Male in the X category, they would be entitled to a share in inheritance equal to that of any brothers. Under shariah, women’s inheritance is just half that of their brothers. This poses a direct threat to the supposedly “natural” right of “natural” men to double shares in inheritance. As Mushtaq Ahmad Khan said last year, allowing citizens to choose self-perceived gender identity presents a “danger to the family and inheritance systems”.

The family form under capitalist patriarchy is the compulsory norm for social existence and ensures two primary objectives: one, that it is ensured that privately owned property remains within the family, and two, that the state can be absolved of the costs of reproductive work, such as childcare, cooking, washing, cleaning, which can be pushed into the confines of the family home where all this work is done for free, primarily by women. The family form is presented as the natural and neutral form of social existence as if no deviation from it has ever been possible. In reality, the current family form is itself a historical product. This natural appearance of the bourgeois family form is sustained through institutions of religion, schools, workplaces, media etc. The gendered roles that the capitalist family form has imposed on us as men and women flow from the needs of capital. These roles are in reality only representative of the ruling and middle classes, where the woman can afford to just care for the home. For the vast majority of the working masses, women have the double burden of both working outside the home and doing the reproductive work for free within the home. Even when transgender people adopt another binary gender to identify and they fulfil all the gendered roles that come with that package, they disrupt the myth of naturalness of these roles. Thus, their mere existence is a threat to the natural appearance of the bourgeois family form.

The current anxieties in Pakistan regarding the transfer of private property and the threat that the law apparently poses to “the family system” reveal how the institutions of family, the clergy and the law operate in a nexus to ensure the existence and sustenance of the private property system. This system ensures that the rich remain rich and the poor remain poor. It makes sure that the son of a capitalist continues to own the family enterprise even after the father dies and the son of a worker is forced to work on meagre wages even after his father dies. The regressive accumulation of wealth in a few hands can simply not continue without the family system. The current law on transgender protection stipulated that a person identifying as a trans man would also get twice as much as a trans woman in inheritance. In a country where it is a norm for brothers to emotionally manipulate their sisters into giving up their already meagre share of inheritance or simply usurp it without their consent, one can imagine the anxieties the law is causing for reactionary men now facing the threat of their biological sisters potentially “turning into” men.

While there are no numbers to substantiate such ridiculous fears, the class basis of these anxieties is abundantly clear. While these fears are mostly unfounded, the threats to the lives and security of transgender people are dangerously real. In 2021, at least 20 transgender people were reported to have been killed in Pakistan. Pakistan’s religious court has today deprived transgender people from the right to be who they are. This is a fundamental attack on their selfhood. The blood of young people committing suicides in the coming days would be on the hands of Mushtaq Ahmad Khan and equally on the luxury dupattas and chandeliers of the JK Rowling imitation sipping her tea in Pakistan.

As socialists and workers, we should be clear that this is not just an attack on transgender people’s rights. It is in fact an attack on all of us. Today marks a black day and a huge defeat for the Pakistani working masses and oppressed people. The court that has been used to orchestrate this attack on our democratic rights bears the legacy of military dictator Ziaul Haq. Today, they have come after our transgender brothers and sisters. Tomorrow, they will come after all women and impose the hijab on us like in neighbouring Iran in the name of Islam. In fact, why even go to Iran. Just some decades ago, Ziaul Haq did impose the hijab on public officials.

Therefore, the League for the Fifth International appeals to all workers, farmers, trade unions, feminists and progressive people in Pakistan to fight against these dogmatic forces. We will have to do it ourselves because the bourgeoisie clearly will not. Mushtaq Khan attempted in 2021 to further his ugly agenda but did not succeed as Shireen Mazari opposed him back then. The current backlash against transgender people has allowed the ruling regime to conjure up a fear in the minds of the masses through its media, intelligentsia and clerics to deflect from the real issues of the economic crisis, the attacks on democratic rights, the devastating floods and the ever-increasing external debt. The Jamaat-e-Islami has long played this role to come to the defence of the dwindling capitalist system. Unable to come to power on its own, this has become the sole job of the Jamaat-e-Islami in modern times to secure its share of the pie. While its social basis is nominal, it cannot be ignored for the fact that it is constituted mostly by the small businessmen and traders class, i.e. the petit bourgeoisie. These layers can be, and historically have been, mobilised to physically counter and crush workers and their organisations. Therefore, we must not let them succeed, and fight with all our power against these patriarchal attacks of the forces of reaction. Our brothers and sisters in struggle in neighbouring Iran should be our guiding light!

- Reverse the annulment of the self-identification clauses in the transgender protection law now! Freedom for all to identify as their true selves!
- Equal minimum wage for all men, women, transgender people!
- State-funded shelters for transgender people run by working class transgender people with autonomy!
- No to all discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, orientation, religion, race!
- Right to unionisation for all professions!
We also call on socialists and trade unionists to combat transphobia and other such ills within our movement. This means building trade unions with membership of transgender people and also catering to their specific issues through the provision of caucus, i.e. the right for transgender and biological women to meet without male presence to discuss their issues openly without fear or hindrance, and then bring the decisions and proposals into the trade unions. We have to strengthen our trade unions and democratise them in order to effectively win our demands through striking of work. Finally, we need to build a workers’ revolutionary party to fight for not just our basic democratic demands but also for power to enforce these demands.