An Indian hijra dances in Mumbai. Photo: Getty.
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India’s Supreme Court recognises a third gender

The Supreme Court in India has issued a new law allowing transgender people to change their gender on official documents to reflect their gender identity – why are so many European countries still several steps behind?

The Supreme Court in India has issued a new law allowing transgender people to change their gender on official documents to reflect their gender identity. Many newspapers yesterday reported this as India officially recognising a “third gender” – because until the law was passed, transgender people had to register as either male or female. The law is actually more wide-ranging than this because it means anyone can change their gender on official documents to male, female or transgender depending on their self-identity. The term self-identity is crucial here: transgender people in India don’t need to undergo any surgical or medical intervention to change their gender on official documents.

These new laws alone won’t change the discrimination that many transgender people (often called hijra in India) face: many are excluded from mainstream employment and society – to the extent that some hospitals have reportedly refused to treat them – and are regularly harassed by police. It is however an important step in the right direction, because legal recognition can underpin greater social acceptance and community integration. The Supreme Court is also introducing quotas to increase the representation of transgender people in employment and education.

So how does India now compare to other countries in terms of transgender rights? It is hard to find reliable, comprehensive data on laws protecting transgender people worldwide, but Amnesty International  and the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association both publish detailed reports on the situation in Europe: and they suggest that European countries have some catching up to do when it comes to establishing a legal framework to protect and recognise the rights of transgender and intersex people.

Last year, Germany became the first country in Europe to allow babies to be registered as “indeterminate sex” when they are born with characteristics of both sexes: until then (as in other European countries) parents were forced to assign a gender to their baby, a decision that is often accompanied by surgery to make the child’s physical characteristics conform more closely to either male or female.

Several countries worldwide allow individuals to register as a third gender on their passport applications including New Zealand (2012), Bangladesh (2011) and Australia (2011) , while Nepal has allowed people to register as a third gender on its census since 2007 and Pakistan on identity cards since 2011. In the UK, individuals who are born intersex (around one in 2000 of the population) must be registered as male or female, and often undergo surgery as young babies to “enforce” this assigned gender. 

European countries have also been too slow to allow individuals to change their gender on official documents to reflect their self-identity. In 1992 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that refusing to allow people to change their gender markers on official documentation was a violation of human rights – but still many European countries are lagging behind. The ILGA has published a summary of trans rights across 49 countries in Europe and found that in 16 countries there is no procedure for people to change their gender on official documents. In 24 countries in Europe, trans people must undergo sterilisation before their gender identity is recognised. In other countries they must first be diagnosed as suffering from a mental health disorder and in 19 countries you must be single to change your gender identity. Why should people be forced to make such stark choices?

While the legal system in many European countries fails to recognise individuals’ gender identity, many transgender people are also subject to abuse and discrimination in other areas of life: 35 per cent of respondents to Amnesty International’s survey of transgender rights said they had experienced violence or the threat of violence in the past five years.

The Supreme Court ruling in India is good news for the country’s transgender population, and its impact could be even greater if it forces European countries to face up to some uncomfortable home truths. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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