An Indian hijra dances in Mumbai. Photo: Getty.
Show Hide image

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 New York. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

How do you cope after a western invasion? We hear from Iraqis rebuilding their lives

Fifteen years have passed since Tony Blair led Britain into the Iraq war, and civilians are still trying to resurrect a society they almost lost.

Fifteen years on from the Iraq war in Fallujah, a city in the Anbar province just west of Baghdad, Iraqis are still trying to piece their lives back together.

Yasser Hamid, a local civil society activist tells me that – although it’s painful to think about the past – sectarianism no longer grips the communities he works in.

While perhaps not as well-known as Baghdad or Mosul, Fallujah’s successful regeneration will be significant for the rest of the country. Fallujah was one of the first major cities to be captured by IS, and the area was previously known for its rich religious identity. Shias, Sunnis, Jews and Christians had co-existed peacefully, living side by side for centuries in the area and others such as Habbaniya, Ana and Rawa.

This diverse history and culture did not fit the IS narrative of division, leading to the persecution of minorities and an exodus of those who had lived there for their entire lives.

For those I meet, the ability to one day reinstate a culture of tolerance is therefore prized as the ultimate declaration that terrorism has been defeated and sectarianism does not belong in Iraq.

One of the most impressive acts of solidarity can be seen in the Ribat al-Mohammadi, a council of Sunni imams founded to combat extremism. Threatened by IS, the imams escaped to the nearby town of Haditha, uniting with locals who saw IS as no different from their al-Qaeda predecessors.

In the “Anbar Spring” of 2007-8, local civilians had risen up against al-Qaeda. In true defiance of terrorism’s attempts to divide, one imam proudly stated: “We had Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Yazidis and others fighting side by side to liberate their lands.”

Today, these imams are working to restore Fallujah’s culture of coexistence. While IS preached radical hate, the imams preach humanity, trying to confront extremist thought and demonstrate that Islam is a religion of peace, mercy and civility. They hold workshops with young Iraqis where they use their Quranic knowledge to debunk the lies spouted by radicals, and teach the next generation the importance of a strong society.

I see signs that this message is filtering through. Civil society is relatively new to the country but it is rapidly expanding. Many young people see themselves as agents of change and this subjectivity is exciting.  After all, 60 per cent of the Iraqi population is under the age of 30.

In Fallujah, students are replacing the propagandist slogans that IS smeared across walls with statements reading “We are all Iraq”.

In Habbaniya, I meet a local Sunni Muslim about his Christian neighbours who were forced to flee by IS. Standing near one of the town’s now disused churches, he speaks of his desire for his neighbours to return home.

“We hope that the conditions here will be just like they were before so that they would think about returning to Habbaniya,” he says. “Just like when the birds leave their area, the area becomes empty, so they are like the birds who have left, making this place empty… if they come, this place would come to life, just like a dry tree, when you give it water, it becomes green again.”

The imams of Ribat al‐Mohammadi tell me what it would take to build greater tolerance in Iraq. People here have co‐existed for thousands of years and their continued existence is proof of that,” one says. “It is not a case of building tolerance but returning to the values of tolerance that have existed prior to extremism.”

Citizens want their country to be known for its rich history and influence on modern civilisation – not war and terror. It may take a generation for the damage to be reversed, but rebuilding the social fabric will prove essential in piecing together the diverse sections of Iraqi society.

Haidar Lapcha is a British Iraqi activist and director at Integrity UK