Elections Beyond Gender

The twist in transgender candidate Nayab Ali’s story is that her candidacy was challenged in the court by someone else who is seen as being from her own community

Elections Beyond Gender

It is not the urs of Bari Imam but the air at the prime shrine in Islamabad is festive on 10 January 2024. Transgenders at their shelter, generally referred to as Pari Bagh, on the far corner of the shrine premises, are hugging each other, singing and dancing.

They usually are full of life, but today something special has happened. They are happy because Islamabad High Court, situated three to four kilometres away from this shelter at Constitution Avenue, upheld the right of Nayab Ali, one of their own, to run for NA 46 and NA 47 as an independent candidate in the upcoming general elections. The shelter where they live was founded mainly with the efforts of Nayab Ali, who collected donations and contributed herself to build it.

After the court verdict, Ali will be facing heavyweights like Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar and Tariq Fazal Chaudhry here. The real fight is upon her. Powerful forces who sought to prevent her from taking part in the electoral process even before it starts have tasted defeat.

Commenting on the development, Nayab Ali tells The Friday Times-Naya Daur (TFT-ND), “The case was very weak. As the judges have pointed out, to contest elections is fundamental right of all citizens regardless of gender. Justice has prevailed.”

Chaudhry Sultan Mehmood, a political analyst, tells TFT-ND that when the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had accepted her papers to contest the elections, Pakistan Tahreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) launched a campaign against her on social and mainstream media. He says the party argued that while the papers of its candidate, a lawyer, had been rejected, those of a transwoman accepted – dragging gender into politics.

When the party was in power, its ministers and allies like Sheikh Rashid would publicly berate their opponent Bilawal Bhutto Zardari calling him “khusra,” a derogatory term for a trans person, Mehmood adds. He says it seems that the PPP has a more balanced approach about gender in politics.

Dr Shafqat Munir, a senior member of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), tells TFT-ND, “It is misleading to drag gender in politics in a negative manner. Being transgender has been stigmatized and due to this, transgender people are denied normal opportunities to earn, not to speak of running for elections. Equity comes before equality. They have not been even counted properly. In the census, their number is 10,000, while in reality they are much more than that,” he says.

He says they have been disowned by their families – either at the time of birth or at school-going age – due to their gender. They then grow up in their own settlements.

The twist in Nayab Ali’s story is that her candidacy was challenged in the court by someone else who is seen as being from her own community.

Almas Bobi is a known personality who is often associated in the public perception with the trans community, though she has objections to this term. Bobi tells TFT-ND that Nayab Ali’s original name is Muhammad Arsalan. “If she contests elections under that name, we are with her.” Bobi says that she agrees with the decision of Federal Shariat Court that thae criteria to determine gender of anyone should be laid out in an unambiguous manner. “The applicant should not have the liberty to register themselves as male, female or trans. We are Khawaja Saras and not transgender people,” she says firmly.

Kashish, another Khawaja Sara who ran for elections from NA 53 against Shahid Khaqan Abbasi in the 2018 general elections, says that her community is misrepresented in politics and international forums.

“There is a lot of talk about Khawaja Saras taking important roles in government and non-governmental bodies. People think they are our success stories. These success stories have little impact, if anything, on the lives of Kashis and about 300,000 other transgender people of Pakistan.”

“These (success stories) are the dreams that we have been robbed of and that have been poisoned. Most of these so-called representatives of ours work for the interests of gays and lesbians,” she says.

“They are not us. They are transgender people. We are Khawaja Saras. We have a Guru system that has entered its eighth generation now. Every Guru knows the number of his followers and in our congregations we count them. And the total number is over 300,000. But only 2,200 have acquired ID cards mentioning their gender as Khawaja Sara.”

Chaudhry Sharafat Ali, executive director of the School of Law and Development (SLD), where Nayab Ali is a team member, dispels this impression, saying that when in 2018, an act of parliament was passed for protection of transgender people, it did not discriminate between Khawaja Saras or other transgender people. “That year, about 12 transgender people stood in general elections, including Nayab Ali. She ran from Okara. And she bagged the highest number of votes compared to other transgender candidates. The debate about who is a transgender and who is not is futile. The basic question is of fundamental human rights. And law allows all citizens to contest elections, with no discrimination on the basis of gender.”

He says Nayab Ali had been part of many training initiatives for judicial officers that were conducted by SLD in Islamabad and provinces. She deserves to run for elections, concludes Chaudhry.

Nayab Ali says that her agenda is broader. “I do not represent only transgender people. I represent my entire constituency. I represent the poor living in villages of Islamabad, whom no one knows much about. I represent the affluent people who want to bring about a change,” she says.

She says her transgender people go to public and tell them, “ham note mangne nahi, vote mangne aai hen.” (We don’t ask for money, we ask for your vote). This slogan shatters the public perception that transgender people are beggars.

Nayab Ali demands that appropriate arrangements should be made for transgender people on election day. She says people of her constituency pray for her success. People from other parts of country also come to encourage her, she says.

She has won many national and international awards for her work to protect the rights of transgender people and uphold human rights. She has survived an acid attack and threats along her journey.

Prof Tahir Naeem Malik, a political analyst, says that the main battle is yet to begin. “Clerics have already started spreading hatred against her, calling into question her gender,” he says. “The political heavyweights she has taken on have a track record of outdoing their opponents and tarnishing their image,” he adds. “There are many barriers in her way. If the system is fair, she stands a chance to find a place in the parliament,” Malik concludes.