Dressed in women’s attire and a nose-pin errantly positioned on one nostril, 38-year-old Shahzadi adjusts her ‘dupatta’ (scarf) over her head as she enters the office of Cantonment Board Clifton, a provincial government bureau that recently hired her.
With a delicate, fading orange henna pattern on her hands, pink nail polish and colourful glass bracelets around her wrist, Shahzadi can easily pass for a woman in this male-dominated office.
She can indeed, except for the fact 'the national identity card has a picture of me as a female but my gender states I’m a male!' explained the transgender.
The cantonment board, which looks after civic amenities, has the difficult task of recovering municipal taxes and fees from absconding residents or from those whose commercial outlets in the affluent Clifton area here in the southern port city of Karachi, have outstanding dues.
Shahzadi and her three friends, Nasira, 31, Aini, 35, and Riffi Khan, 33, are among the first-ever batch of transgenders to have been given employment in this government office, eight months after a landmark ruling in July 2009 by the Supreme Court of Pakistan that ordered citizenship rights to be given to this marginalised community.
Transgenders identify themselves with a gender other than what they were born in biologically.
'We have been hired in the department that collects the taxes that are evaded by defaulters,' Shahzadi explained to IPS.
'We have a huge outstanding loan owed to us, mostly by the rich evaders,' said Kazi Aftab, their supervisor. 'While they feel no shame in defaulting on their taxes, the sight of these transgenders at their doorstep will make them extremely uneasy and they will pay up their dues,' he added.
The idea of employing transgenders in the tax collection department was first used in the eastern Indian state of Bihar in 2006, where transgenders were employed, to sing and clap loudly, outside the homes of defaulters.
'No, we are not going to sing and clap, not for free, anyway,' Khan said, laughing.
Just a month into their posts, the four are still being trained. How good they will be in recovering money for the Clifton cantonment board is yet to be seen.
But for now, their joy knows no bounds just from knowing that they have work. 'There is something to look forward to, every morning when I get up,' Nasira sighed happily. 'We have finally been given a decent job like the rest of you.'
There have been no untoward scenes in the office so far, such as catcalls, others sizing them up or looking at them with derision, although they had feared this, she added.
'We had prepared the entire staff before and had also warned them that severe action would be taken if anything inappropriate would be said to them,' said Aftab.
The employees are also guaranteed protection even after working hours. 'I have a 24/7 hotline with them in case they are harassed. Within minutes of receiving their call, a mobile team will get to the spot and rescue them,' said Aftab.
Once confirmed, the newly appointed Clifton cantonment board employees will get housing and transport benefits too. They already get healthcare.
Ridiculed and scoffed at, transgenders have been forced to live on the fringes of society, scraping together a living performing vulgar dances, singing at weddings or collecting alms at the birth of newborns in exchange for blessings.
But even that kind of income has dwindled. 'Singing and dancing at weddings and parties was how we made a living, we still do. But now with so many women having taken up this profession, we really don’t stand a chance!' Nasira said ruefully.
Many had thus resorted to begging and even prostitution.
'The space to earn a decent living has been narrowing for us,' justified Khan. An exception among her community with her double master’s degree in political science and economics, she has never been able to land a proper job.
Her two previous jobs, 'that of a receptionist' at two hospitals in Karachi, were short stints. 'When the management found out about me, even though I’d dress up in male attire, they just told me to leave,' Khan recalled.
The Pakistan Supreme Court’s ruling was in response to a petition filed by Aslam Khaki, a religious jurist. The apex court ordered the government to support transgenders financially through social welfare programmes such as the Benazir Income Support Programme and the Baitul Mal.
As a first step, it ordered the social welfare departments of the country’s four provinces to carry out a nationwide survey and find out the exact number of transgenders in Pakistan.
'The Supreme Court also promised us medical facilities, initiation of microcredit schemes, a fixed two percent quota in every government department and inclusion of the third gender in the national identity card,' added Bindya Rana, a respected leader in her community.
Rana, along with Almas Bobby from Rawalpindi in Punjab province, has been the real moving force behind the judgement.
'It’s a big step, one in the right direction,' remarked Rana, who only two months ago registered her first non-governmental organisation called Gender Interactive Alliance.
'It’s a step the politicians and human rights activists should have taken,' said Bobby, who estimates the national figure of transgenders to be close to 400,000.
But while the Supreme Court ruling has brought about key initial changes, transgenders and activists remain worried about the steps ahead in getting full rights for the community.
'Until we get the issue of the national identity card resolved, with inclusion of a third box next to male and female where they ask for gender , we cannot make any headway,' said Rana.
Without that formal recognition, she said, transgenders can neither seek financial support from various government programmes nor find jobs.
'For everything from getting your passport made, to acquiring a piece of land or even to vote or stand for elections, the national identity card has to be shown in this country and we don’t have that!' Rana pointed out.
But they are willing to hold on for as long as it takes. 'We’ve waited 62 years, what’s a few months here or there,' Bobby said, referring to the decades of waiting for recognition since Pakistan’s independence. 'The government has been struggling with more serious issues that need its immediate attention, like terrorism, suicide attacks, inflation and rising poverty,' she said magnanimously.
© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service
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