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Despite Rights Gains, Pakistan's Transgender Community Still Under Attack

Pakistani eunuchs and transgenders demonstrate for their rights in the city of Peshawar in 2011.
Pakistani eunuchs and transgenders demonstrate for their rights in the city of Peshawar in 2011.

After a string of legal victories bolstered their rights, members of Pakistan's long-oppressed transgender community had hoped their plight would improve.

But a recent deadly attack shows that transgenders, known officially as "third-gender" citizens in Pakistan -- a group that includes cross-dressers, transsexuals, eunuchs, hermaphrodites, and transvestites -- still face violence, intimidation, and abuse.

On April 6, two members of the third-gender community were killed and another abducted and gang-raped by armed men in a predawn attack in northwest Pakistan.

The incident took place in the Swabi district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, where a group of third genders was returning home after performing a music-and-dance show at a wedding party.

Swabi district police chief Sajjad Khan said the armed men were waiting for them in a field and tried to abduct all of them but failed. Khan said the attackers then opened fire, killing two people on the spot and wounding one. The police chief said the armed men then abducted one person who was released hours later after being gang-raped by four men.

Fazal Malik, a police official in Swabi, told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that police raided several locations and arrested six suspects, all of whom he said had attended the wedding party. Malik said they had been charged with murder and gang-rape.

"This has happened with us in Peshawar several times and the government is not taking notice of this," says Zeba, general secretary of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Transgender Association, who goes by only one name. "When the government is not taking steps [for our security], how can we stop it? We have said this on television, in newspapers, and staged protests but no one is paying heed to our voice."

The minority group's recent gains have been groundbreaking in Pakistan, a deeply conservative country where ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities are often victims of violence and persecution. Yet those gains have done little to hide the difficult life facing third-gender citizens.

Many describe themselves as "professional wedding dancers," but supporters say they are often forced to earn income through begging and prostitution. Often dressed in bright-colored saris -- a traditional dress worn by women on the subcontinent -- and wearing heavy makeup, some roam the streets asking people for money, making them targets for extortion, sexual violence, and criminal gangs.

Following the official third-gender classification handed down by the Supreme Court in 2011, members of the community were granted the rights to vote and run for office. The community is estimated to number around 500,000.

Nazia, a member of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Transgender Association, says little has changed for now, despite their newfound political rights.

But the group has vowed to continue fighting for a place in Pakistani society. "After all, we are also humans," Nazia says.

Rabia Akram Khan contributed to this report from Islamabad
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.