Armed police stood guard outside a recent birthday party in northwestern Pakistan.
Even as they swayed to music and fed each other cake, it was clear to the guests why the seemingly innocuous celebration in Peshawar, capital of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, needed protection.
All of the revelers were transgender. While mostly restricted in society to the roles of entertainers and dancers, transgender people are rarely allowed to openly hold their own gatherings. They have fallen victim to violence in recent years, are frequently discriminated against, and enjoy few rights.
Farzana Jan is a leader of Trans Action Pakistan, an organization that campaigns for the rights of an estimated 500,000 transgender people in the country of some 200 million people.
"It's the first time in a decade that we have openly hosted such a function," Jan said, noting the rarity of such occasions.
Peshawar authorities usually deny permission requests for transgender parties, and police raids on such secretive parties are common. But official attitudes have softened slightly since the death of a transgender activist last year. Alisha, 25, was shot six times and then denied treatment at a Peshawar hospital.
Police patted down guests for weapons and prevented those without invitations from joining the January 22 party.
Several dozen members of Peshawar’s transgender community held the “birthday” party for 40-year-old Shakeela. Rather than marking her actual birthday, the special one-off occasion was intended to help her with gifts and donations toward starting a business.
"This is the first and last birthday of my life. It is an important, and the happiest, occasion of my life," Shakeela said. "I was afraid that I may not be able to experience this occasion, as it took us a lot of time to convince the authorities to allow us to host it."
Across Pakistan, transgender people are shunned by their families and forced into begging or prostitution to survive. Most change their names and move to new communities and cities.
In recent years, the community has moved toward attaining greater rights. A court recently decided that, for the first time, transgender people will be counted in this year’s national census. Pakistan’s top court granted the community equal citizenship rights in 2012. A year earlier, they gained the right to vote.
Jan and other activists continue to struggle for greater social acceptance, full rights, and most importantly protection from violence and persecution.
-- Written by Jibran Ahmad for Reuters