ISLAMABAD : “Give me a chance,” Nadeem Kashish pleads with voters in Islamabad. Her struggle is not for power — she knows her campaign is futile — but for acceptance, as transgenders make historic bids in the upcoming Pakistan election.
“I am contesting for the first time and your vote will give me my identity,” Kashish tells residents as she goes from door to door in a low-income neighbourhood near the Sufi shrine of Bari Imam, in the north of the capital.
Kashish, slender and clad in yellow plaid, is contesting in a district that pits her against incumbent prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and opposition leader Imran Khan.
But the vote on July 25 is not about winning or losing for Pakistan’s transgenders, she says. “We have been given support and space by the government (to contest the elections) and we will use this opportunity with full force.”
Transgenders — also known in Pakistan as “khawajasiras”, an umbrella term denoting a third sex that includes transsexuals, transvestites and eunuchs — have long fought for their rights in Pakistan.
Many modern-day transgender people in Pakistan claim to be cultural heirs of the eunuchs who thrived at the courts of the Mughal emperors that ruled the Indian subcontinent for two centuries, until the British arrived in the 19th century and banned them.
In 2009, Pakistan became one of the first countries in the world to legally recognise a third sex, allowing transgenders to obtain identity cards, and several have run in elections in the past.
This year Pakistan’s parliament passed a historic bill providing transgenders with the right to determine their own gender identity in all official documents, including choosing a blend of both genders.
But the nationwide vote on July 25 is a historic one for the community as authorities have removed gender as a criteria for candidates, meaning that, for example, men who identify as women are no longer forced to run as men.
Transgenders number at least half a million people in the country, according to several studies — possibly up to two million, say TransAction, a rights organisation.
They are among the most politicised minority communities in Pakistan. Originally a record 13 transgender candidates sought to contest the 2018 election, though nine had to withdraw, mainly due to lack of funds.
Their campaign weapons are primarily social media and local meetings. “But I still believe that they will bag a few votes,” says Uzma Yaqoob, head of the Forum for Dignity Initiatives (FDI).
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