Lubna Lal in her home in Jhelum. Photograph: Samira Shackle
Show Hide image

Politicians of the third gender: the "shemale" candidates of Pakistan

The Pakistani trans community is unlike the West's: hijras, as they are known, consider themselves a third gender, neither male nor female, and refer to themselves as "shemale". Samira Shackle meets Pakistan's first hijra electoral candidates.

Lubna Lal is not your traditional politician. Better known to the residents of her home town of Jhelum, in Pakistan’s Punjab province, as Madam Lubna, dancing girl, she is one of the country’s first ever transgender election candidates.

Transgender people, known colloquially as hijras or khusras, are a long-standing part of South Asian society. In Pakistan, there are an estimated 500,000 members of this community, which includes castrated men, intersex people, transsexuals, and transvestites. They are a traditionally marginalised group, who make a living by begging and dancing at weddings or other events. 

In previous elections, they have been unable to vote, because they were not willing to classify themselves as men to receive official documentation. However, in 2011, a Supreme Court ruling recognised them as a third gender – neither male nor female – which allows them to get ID cards, cast votes, and stand as candidates. The 11 May election will be the first in Pakistan’s history which includes transgender candidates. 

“We are poor people,” says Lal, who is standing for a seat in the Provincial Assembly. “I don’t have any vehicle so I am going door to door campaigning on foot or by rickshaw.” She stops and laughs. “The other candidates are big crocodiles and I am just a simple cow.”

Like many hijras, Lal lives with other members of the community. Unlike most transgender people in the west, South Asian hijras strongly identify as a third gender – rather than as male or female. They even refer to themselves as “shemales”, a term considered highly derogatory in the west because of its association with pornography and the sex trade. Despite this distinct identity, hijras use the female pronoun because there is no neutral alternative. They have their own social norms – all dress in women’s clothes, and many have undergone castration – but a range of identities come under this umbrella.

During my interview with Lal, two younger hijras sit on a mattress on the floor, occasionally pitching in. Others come in and out of the small one storey house, which has pink walls and a huge poster of Madam Lubna as a young dancer. Many of these women are estranged from their families, and joined the hijra community in their teens (Lal was 15). As a result, these groups are tightly knit. When older members of the community are too old to make a living from dancing at functions, the younger ones support them.

Lal says that she has not encountered any hostility from the local population. “I have been living in this area for the last 35 years so people know me. I am standing as a shemale but not just for my own community. I want to help poor people and improve education, health services, and sewerage. The poor people of this area are happy I am standing.” However, as she is talking, the odd detail comes out: people have defaced and removed some of her election posters, and her Facebook account was recently hacked.

Other transgender candidates have faced a more direct threat. Bindiya Rana is standing for the Provincial Assembly in the southern city of Karachi, where there is a large hijra community. For the last five years, she has been a social worker, helping not only transgender women, but rape victims and the unemployed. Rana had to fight to get her nomination papers accepted by the Supreme Court. It was initially rejected by the Election Commission on the basis of her gender, but an appeal ruled in her favour and she has been allowed to stand. “My victory was when I successfully filed those nomination papers,” she says. “I feel I have already won.”

Like Lal, Rana has lived in her area for many years, and claims that most people have received her candidacy well. “They want to talk about sewerage, bad hospitals, lack of education, lack of medicine, not about my gender,” she says. “They know I have been working for this community for a long time.”

But not everyone feels that way. “In the last three weeks, since my candidacy was accepted, I am receiving phone calls from unidentified numbers. They say ‘maybe you will not live to see the 11 May’ and tell me not to participate in the election. Now I don’t sleep in my own house at night, I go to stay with other shemales. But I believe in God and I am not scared of anybody.”

Almas Bobby, head of the Pakistan Shemale Foundation. Photograph: Samira Shackle

Transgender women occupy a strange place in South Asian society. To an extent, they are accepted – perhaps more than one might expect in a socially conservative country like Pakistan. Yet they also stay within their predefined social roles. “It is an ambiguous space,” explains Dr Anuja Agrawal, a sociologist at Delhi University and author of Gendered Bodies: The Case of the ‘Third Gender’ in India. “There is a place for them, where they are allowed to come at auspicious occasions and people think it’s okay to give them money. They are on the periphery of society, yes, but that periphery is very much part of the structure as a whole.”

There is a deep-seated belief, particularly in less educated areas, that hijras have the power to bestow curses or blessings. According to a study by Dr Humaira Jami, lecturer in psychology at Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam university, this is rooted in the religious belief that God bestows the unfortunate with special powers. The folklore goes that if you do not give money to hijras on the birth of a son, they will claim him for their own. 

Unable to find normal employment, transgender women frequently have no option but to rely on begging or to turn to sex work. The fact that transgender women are contesting this election is one step on the road towards stepping out of this marginalised social position. 

“It has been very hard for hijras to get integrated into the modern economy,” says Agrawal. “They are not totally rejected by society, but it is hard for ambiguously gendered people to move out of their traditional roles. Standing in elections is definitely important: it reflects an attempt to get integrated into modern democratic institutions and expand one’s sphere of influence.” 

Almas Bobby is the head of the Pakistan Shemale Foundation, an organisation she started in 2004 to protest for the rights of transgendered people. She is an articulate trans-woman who speaks good English and slips easily into amusing impressions of prominent public figures and her own co-workers. 

“Before in Pakistan, there was no concept of our community having rights,” she says when we meet at her spacious house in Rawalpindi. “The main problems were harassment by dirty men, and police harassment. They would come to our houses, rape us, burn our hair, and the police did nothing. Even civil society didn’t accept us, because we are just seen as fun.”

The tide turned in 2004, when transgender women started to protest at police stations when their community members were attacked. This resulted in the first arrests of men for harassment. All the candidates I spoke to agreed that the situation has improved even further since the 2011 Supreme Court ruling that granted them ID cards and the associated legal rights.

“Before there were terrible problems,” says Lal. The two women who live with her nod agreement as she describes men banging on their door at night, trying to get in, and routine harassment on the streets. “But now it’s much better, since we have our legal status. They are afraid to bother us.”

Across the border in India, hijras were granted voting rights (with a similar “third gender” classification) in 1994. In 1998, Shabnam “Mausi” Bano was elected to the state legislative assembly in Madhya Pradesh, where she remained an elected politician til 2003. Hijras have since established their own political party, Jeeti Jitayi Politics (JJP), which translates to “politics that has already been won”.

Out of a total field of 23,000 candidates standing for the Provincial and National Assemblies in the 11 May polls, transgender candidates make up just six or seven. They are all standing independently of any political party. Resham, who like many hijras goes only by a first name, was standing for the National Assembly in the Shekhapur area of Punjab. She tells me she withdrew her papers after one of her rivals promised to take action to protect hijras in the area if she agreed to step down. But Rana, Lal, and other candidates, are continuing their campaigns, tirelessly walking from door-to-door and lobbying their neighbours for votes.

“This is the first drop of rain, I know,” says Bobby. “But if we do not have success in this election, then next time, next time, next time. In Pakistan’s 65 years, the women have not completed their struggle for rights. We are a third gender. It will take time, but we hope it will be good for the next generation.” 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.