The Moorat March: Amid Setbacks, Trans Activists March on
In Field Notes, writers show us the creativity, perspectives, and strategies of everyday organizers who are pushing us toward a world where a truly just, multiracial democracy is possible. Amidst a global rise in anti-trans legislation, trans activists and their allies worldwide are digging their heels in. In this Field Note, Arslan Athar shows us what resilience looks like on the ground in Pakistan.
08 November, 2023
Neha* points to her Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC; the national ID cards used in Pakistan) and asks an important question, one which I cannot answer for her. “Now what? Does my card go back to being ‘M’ (Male)? That is not who I am!” In May 2023, Pakistan’s Federal Shariat Court, which is meant to uphold Islamic values through the enforcement of Sharia Law, struck down important and key sections of the country’s Transgender Protection Bill (2018). The Court argued that the right to self-gender identity was un-Islamic and acted against the moral codes of society.
Back in 2018, the Pakistani transgender community rallied for legal recognition for trans, gender non-conforming and Khwajasira people, a term that traditionally referred to intersex people but became an umbrella term to include both intersex and trans identities. The legislative journey actually began in 2017 when a very reductive bill that called for invasive screening for individuals to be considered ‘legally’ transgender was proposed to Parliament. Grassroots activists rallied against those controversial provisions. Trans rights activist and researcher Mehlub Jameel told NPR, “We wanted to give feedback on the bill and ended up rewriting it!” Community activists surveyed the trans community to see what they actually wanted and needed. As a result, demands for access to work, equality, and safety were included in the legislation. Researchers cited religious rulings from other countries, like Iran, which supported the existence of trans identity within Islam to justify changes to the bill.
Support from political veterans like Senator Farhatullah Babar made it possible for the feedback and changes to be presented by community advocates and eventually included in a new proposed law. With unprecedented political support Transgender Protection Bill (TPA) became law, and for the first time in Pakistan’s history, its transgender community could legally claim their identity. With that came the right to work, legal protection against discrimination, as well as protection against violence and prejudice. The bill held the government accountable to set up safe houses, protection from domestic violence, and provide rehabilitation and therapy. It also made the government responsible for creating public and state awareness of trans identities and guides to providing equitable services. For the next four years, the community made significant strides toward inclusion and awareness of trans issues were on the rise.
Bubbles Khanum, a Karachi based trans rights activist said, “For me the TPA meant that when I go out and get harassed for my gender identity, I could report that harassment, or when I was apartment hunting and landlords refused me housing based on my gender identity, I could report that too”. Neha also talked about how the bill gave her recognition and some degree of autonomy in Pakistani society. “I came from a well-to-do family and was kicked to the curb when I transitioned. This society had no room to hire me for jobs I was trained to do, there was no room for me to earn what I deserved, but with the bill, those rooms and those discussions were opened up to me.”
A Major Setback
While the hard-fought victory of the passage of the TPA gave legal cover and protection on paper, implementation on ground was poor. Since then, a largely silent trans genocide has plagued the country. Even though the government doesn’t track this violence, the Trans Action Alliance reported up to 2000 cases of violence and 91 murders of trans folk in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province between 2015-2021. At its peak in 2022, news of transgender people being shot down was a daily occurrence. This violence was a symptom of the growing anti-trans movement from a small but vocal and powerful minority of right-wing politicians.
In August 2022, Dr. Mehrub Awan, a prominent trans rights activist, and trans woman, was invited to speak at a TedX conference at a private school in Lahore. Maria B, a prominent Pakistani designer and vocal anti-trans figure whose children attended school used the opportunity to take to social media and attack Dr. Awan and her presence at the conference. The media attention coincided with the crusade to repeal the TPA in the Pakistan Senate led by Jamat-e-Salami, one of Pakistan’s ultra-religious parties notorious for their anti-trans messages. It was also during this time that a Standing Committee was formed in the Senate to hear petitions against the Transgender Protection Act which argued that the TPA promoted homosexuality, which is unfortunately still criminalized in Pakistan. They argued that a trans woman who can legally marry a man is a “homosexual relationship”, de facto arguing that trans women are not in fact women which ironically, is the very thing the TPA protected. They also argued that trans women present a threat to cis-women, an idea that was likely imported to Pakistan from prominent anti-trans figures like JK Rowling and laughable given the Standing Commitee’s long history of approving misogynist laws that truly are a threat to all women.
When the court struck down three major sections of the bill in May 2023, many in the trans community and their supporters felt defeated. It ruled that self-determined gender identity is against the fundamentals of Islam but maintained protections for the intersex community.
Shmyla Khan, a local researcher, “It’s important to think of movements as struggle and resistance where linear and neat progress is rarely experienced, that helps put this moment in perspective. Nonetheless, the moment we’re in requires a lot of work since the ‘anti-gender’ backlash towards the transgender community has become more pronounced and organized in the last few years.”
Khan also cited the importance for movements to work together in Pakistan: “Trans issues are feminist issues and sharing of resources in time, labor and organizing helps everyone advance. The threat of disinformation to spread lies that harm movements is another reason Khanum argues for collective organizing across issues. Disinformation campaigns helped bolster the false narratives that the judgment [against the Transgender Protection Act] upholds, it is important for the wider movement to work towards counter-narratives that are effective and reach a wide cross-section of society. This work is happening within feminist movements, many of which the transgender community is a part of, but we need to make this a priority.”
Anti-trans figures like Maria B and Senator Mushtaq celebrated as if they had defeated all hopes of trans rights being protected by Pakistani law but Khan disagrees. “Challenging the status quo is always a difficult process, we’ve seen that movements are faced with challenges on multiple fronts: state violence, weaponization of laws against organizers, lack of societal support, organized disinformation campaigns online and offline, to name a few. Organizers are also changing times where information dissemination is often on digital platforms or building intersectional solidarities across different identities as a way to fight shared oppressions.” The struggle continues, the modes in which it exists and the demons that have to be fought are ever changing.
The Moorat March
The same activists that fought for the TPA in 2018 organized to combat transphobia, both online and in the streets in 2022. In the midst of all the anti-trans sentiment and violence, the community rallied and held the country’s largest ever trans pride parade in November 2022. The 'Moorat March' celebrated the region’s indigenous trans culture, and showed strength and solidarity amidst the anti-trans attacks. “Moorat” is a traditional word which means “of the soil”, and is a gender neutral term to refer to God’s creation in human form. It is often used in literature and folklore as a deeper, more spiritual way of describing the connection between humanity and God. By invoking this term, the community aimed to show the rich indigenous transgender culture and language.
“For over 5 years we have been Marching at Aurat March (Women’s March) alongside our cis women friends and fellows who gave us a platform and a stage to voice ourselves but we figured out it was time to have a separate march too to better highlight issues that are specific to trans people,” shared Khanum, one of the Moorat March organizers.
For Neha and other members of the trans community, the Moorat March was a major shift: “For me, it was the first time I felt celebrated for being me. The air of my city lets me be who I am. Some of us danced with our hair open, and amongst just ourselves and our allies, it felt fun. We didn’t feel sexualized, or harassed. It was a small moment of just joy.” The march brought together veteran trans activists, people like Maa Bindiya Raana, and also the younger generations, like Neha and Bubbles. Neha and Bubbles expressed how it gave them a heightened sense of community. It was also a reminder of all that has been lost, and all that is worth fighting for.
For Neha, the world post the Shariat Court’s verdict has been unsure and scary. “It feels as though we’re back to being alone again. Who will stand with us now?” Her questions reflect how debate around religious topics is seen as dangerous, and the Court’s decision has definitely colored people’s opinion. Neha admits, “amongst ourselves, we’re fine, but for how much longer can we be insular?” Bubbles Khanum’s approach is more forward looking, and answers the question of how the trans community will move forward. “Post the verdict, our first step is to challenge the verdict in the Supreme Court, because losing our rights will take our trans rights movement at least 20 years back in time, undoing all the work of our prominent activists like Maa Bindiya Raana and Shehzadi Rai. We are not sure of what the outcome will be but we’re hopeful.”