KARACHI, Pakistan— When Bindiya Rana, a transgender candidate in Pakistan’s elections, went door to door in the Karachi slum she hopes to represent, few people seemed to care about which gender she identifies with. They were more interested in what she was going to do to combat the street crime and electricity outages in their neighborhood if elected.
For the first time in Pakistan’s history, transgender people are running as candidates. The development marks a sign of progress for transgender people in this conservative country, where they have long been met by abuse.
Transgender refers to people who present themselves to the world in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. In Pakistan, that usually means people born as men who now dress like women and wear makeup. They identify as a “third gender” rather than as male or female but usually ask to be referred to by the feminine pronoun since there is no third-gender pronoun.
Rana has always been active in her community and works at an organization that helps promote the rights of transgender people as well as street children and other social issues. But she decided to run for office as well after a Supreme Court ruling in 2011 allowed members of the transgender community to get national identity cards recognizing them as a separate identity — neither male or female — and allowing them to vote.
She’s vying for a provincial assembly seat in the May 11 national elections.
“People ask if we will win or lose in the elections. But I won when my nomination papers were submitted,” she said.
The Supreme Court’s decision didn’t explicitly say that transgender people could run for office, but by getting the identity cards and the right to vote the road was opened for them. Before the court’s decision, transgender people could get identity cards only if they identified themselves as men.
Almas Boby, president of the Pakistan Shemale Foundation, which advocates for members of the transgender community, said she knows of at least five transgender candidates taking part in the elections. Two, including Rana, are running in the southern port city of Karachi, and one each from the cities of Jehlum, Gujrat, and Sargodha in Punjab province.
“The Supreme Court of Pakistan gave us our rights. Now transgendered people are also contesting elections, and our thousands of people will vote for them,” Boby said.
“If our people manage to reach assemblies, we will get a better treatment in society,” she said.
Male and female roles are clearly defined in Pakistan, and transgender people often face harassment and abuse — even from their own families. Some are pushed out of the home when they are young and end up prostituting themselves to earn a living.
One role where they are tolerated is as dancers at weddings and other celebrations at which men and women are strictly segregated. In between the dancing and showers of rupee notes, they must fend off groping from drunken guests.
They can also be seen begging for money in the streets, wearing female dress and makeup. Many earn money by blessing newborn babies, which reflects a widespread belief in Pakistan and other South Asian nations that God answers the prayers of someone born underprivileged.
Rana herself faced harassment from her own family, when she started to realize at the age of 12 that she was different than the other kids around her. When she was 14, she ran away from home and found work dancing at weddings and celebrations.
Running for office — and the possibility of actually serving in office — is a way to highlight the role of transgender people in Pakistan, said many of the candidates.
“If I win, I will also become a strong voice for transgendered people, who are often victimized and humiliated,” said Lubna Lal, who is running for a Punjab provincial assembly seat in the city of Jehlum, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Islamabad.
“I am not worried about defeat. I am contesting elections to prove that now we are also part of the society, and we also have equal rights,” she said.
But in many ways, the issues that the transgender candidates are most concerned with are no different from that of the average voter. Most say they want to cut unemployment, address the country’s widespread poverty and electricity blackouts and loosen the grip of Pakistan’s ruling parties on the political process.
“For me it is a jihad to contest elections, and God willing, I will win as I don’t have huge funds. All I have is the love of the people,” said another candidate, Resham. Like some transgender people in Pakistan, Resham only uses one name. She is running for a national assembly seat from the city of Gujrat.
Resham also said voters in her area encouraged her to contest the elections after becoming fed up with all the political parties. That’s a common complaint in Pakistan where many voters rail at the corruption that they feel permeates the political system.
“All political parties have disappointed people. Now they want a change, and I am the best choice for them as my past record is clean and flawless,” she said.
Most of the candidates have few financial resources and are relying on door-to-door campaigning and word of mouth to drum up votes. None is running with a political party, said Boby. All are independents.
Boby said she will also be traveling to the districts to help candidates campaign.
“Our campaign will be different. We will not be holding big rallies. We will go to homes to get votes, and you will see we will get a lot of votes,” she said.
Boby said she was not worried about the security of the transgender candidates, and none has reported any harassment on the campaign trail.
In the slum where Rana knocked on nearly 50 houses in her door-to-door to campaign, there was little animosity from residents. No doors were slammed, and people greeted her with smiles. Rana has lived in this neighborhood for the last 20 years, and many see in her someone who is downtrodden and poor just like them.
“Bindiya must contest. It is everybody’s right. And we believe that being poor like us, she may understand issues better,” said Hameeda Bibi, a resident. “Because those who we thought were our own people and elected to assemblies, they did not do any good for us.”