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Why These Women Are Tired Of Hearing "It's Just Rape"

Photo: Courtesy of Forum for Dignity Initiatives.
Activists in Lahore, Pakistan, protest rape in the transgender community.
Clad in a floral shalwar kameez with her hair swept up, Ashi Jaan was one of the first transgender women to arrive at the protest on August 6 in Lahore, Pakistan. Her demand was simple: no more rape.

"We are raped and abused from the first moment we embrace our identity, and no one supports us. But this time, we will not back down until the government comes forward and punishes those who raped my sisters," Jaan told Refinery29.

Soon, other members of the transgender rights movement joined her, arriving in rickshaws in groups of five. Known as Khwaja Siras (a colloquial term for transgender people) in Pakistan, they gathered together outside of the Lahore Press Club to protest the gang rape of three members of their community over several days in the nearby city of Faisalabad.

On July 26, two transgender women — Julie and Nomi, who identified themselves only by their first names — said that they were brutalised in their own home. They accused members of a well-known criminal gang in Faisalabad of assaulting them. The women said that throughout the night, they were abused physically and sexually with screwdrivers and glass bottles, among other objects. When morning came, the assailants, who the women said had forced their way inside with guns and knives, fled.

Julie told Refinery29 that she had been raped numerous times before. Even while they were still in the hospital, they received threats from the men they say attacked them, Julie said. The intimidating phone calls warned them they would be murdered, mutilated, disfigured with acid, and raped again, she explained. She is currently living in a safe house in Islamabad. Both she and Nomi are in hiding because of the threats they face.

Policemen will allege that the transgenders enjoyed the forcible sex and that they shouldn't complain about such small things.

Uzma Yaqoob, Forum for Dignity Initiatives
Theirs is just one story of abuse and violence suffered by transgender people in Pakistan. Estimated to be about 300,000 hijras (the South Asian term for transgender, or the "third sex," as they call it) in Pakistan in 2009, when they were first incorporated in the national census, they are ostracized for not fitting into a binary gender category. Transgender Pakistanis are often kicked out of their homes and cut off from their families. Some are forced out of jobs and educational institutions with harassment and abuse.
The concept of a third gender, or hijra, is part of both Indian and Pakistani cultures. In some circles, blessings from hijras or Khwaja Siras are considered very powerful. They are often invited to bless weddings, births, and other happy occasions, but then sent back to live on the margins with a measly amount of money. Across the country, many transgender people earn their income from dancing at weddings and other gatherings. But when they can’t find enough clients to dance for, they feed themselves through begging and sex work, Jaan said.

By coming forward after the attack, Julie and Nomi did the unthinkable, said Uzma Yaqoob, a transgender rights activist who runs the nonprofit Forum for Dignity Initiatives. Many survivors of assault are afraid to come forward because they do not believe their attackers will be held responsible, she said.
"It is very rare for transgender [people] in Pakistan to report a rape," she added.

Yaqoob added that many times, if a transgender person does summon the courage to walk into a police station and lodge a complaint, they face taunts and verbal abuse.

"Transgender rape, by thugs, the police, or really just anyone, is so common that it is not really thought of as a criminal offense," Yaqoob said. "Policemen will allege that the transgenders enjoyed the forcible sex, and that they shouldn't complain about such small things."

Police did take Julie and Nomi seriously, however.

"Julie and Nomi came to the station with activists and media to lodge a complaint about being raped. We registered their complaint and now we are investigating the case. These cases take time, [so] we will only be able to tell you more when we know more. We are trying our best to find and arrest the suspect and continue investigations," Mazhar Irfan, the station house officer in Faisalabad who received the complaint, told Refinery29.

But if a survivor is able to lodge a formal complaint with the police, the next step is a physical exam by a legal medical officer at a government hospital. That, too, is often met with resistance from authorities, said Falak Ali Chaudry, a lawyer who works at the Neengar Society, a center that provides pro bono legal counsel for transgender people.

"This examination is a form of physical and mental torture,” Chaudry told Refinery29. Often, he added, doctors will simply refuse to examine the rape victim, citing that "only females can be ‘raped,’ and examining transgenders is not part of their job."
Julie and Nomi had activists and the media by their side when they went to the police station, so the police were forced to lodge their complaint, according to Yaqoob. They were not, however, able to convince the government doctor on duty to examine them.

"The doctor first made light of the matter saying that it's just rape, not murder, and we shouldn't create such a fuss," said Yaqoob. "He then asked how much money we wanted to settle the matter."

Often, such cases are settled privately between rapist and victim for amounts of money that can range anywhere from $100 to $1,000, said Jaan, who said she has personally witnessed such transactions.

Eventually, after five hours, the victims were examined and medical reports citing that the rapes had occurred were issued, Yaqoob said.
"This in itself is quite an achievement," Chaudry told Refinery29. He claimed that in transgender rape cases, it is nearly impossible to persuade the police to formally lodge a police complaint and receive medical evidence from a doctor.

"It’s not the laws that need to be amended. What Pakistan needs is to sensitize and train its police force and its doctors to aid transgender people instead of abusing them," Chaudry added.

But others disagree, saying that in order for transgender people to find safety, employment, and a place in mainstream society, laws must be put in place to protect them and recognise them. A 2009 Pakistani Supreme Court ruling helped establish some protections for transgender people, including how they can inherit property.

Many transgender activists feel that the government needs to do more to educate trans people about their rights. The reason Nomi and Julie stood up to demand that their alleged attackers be punished is because they were aware of their rights, Chaudry said. Like Yaqoob's organization, Chaudry is focused on empowering transgender people by teaching them the law so they can know and report abuse by police and others when they see it.

"Most disenfranchised people don't know they have rights," he added.