A transgender person is defined as one who identifies with a gender other than one assigned at the time of birth. Transgender people are the most visibly invisible minority. They face social discrimination which starts right from the family, and leads to school.

It is heartening to know that the equal rights of transgender people are being recognised by the parliament, through a proposed legislation in the Senate of Pakistan. Pushed by Senator Rubina Khalid, and Senator Farhat Ullah Babar, the Chairman Senate Raza Rabbani has shown a strong commitment to the cause of transgender rights in Pakistan.

However, a lasting change in the social attitudes of mainstream society towards transgender people will only come through the acceptance of transgender people by their families and neighbourhoods. The level of acceptance of transgender identity varies with class and socio-economic background. Generally speaking, once a family comes to know of the gender ambiguous identity of their child, panic sets in.

Depending on the class background of the families concerned, the treatment meted out to the child ranges from pleadings, to bickering and beating, and to removing the gender ‘confusion’.

Some are taken to a psychiatrist to rectify their mental ‘defect’. Failure of these measures leads to a social boycott and eventual expulsion from the family.

Parents from middle and upper classes of society are able to understand and protect their transgender children from exploitation, both at home and in the neighbourhood. In many cases, they are able to offer them quality education and employment in creative and performing arts sectors.

Transgender people from working class backgrounds suffer the most at the hands of family, where often the extended kinship network militates against the crossing of gender binaries. It is the working class parents who need higher moral support and guidance to help them to raise their transgender children according to their special needs.

The act of forced separation from the family creates a psychological trauma, which causes permanent damage to the self-esteem of a transgender person. In the words of Bindyia Rana, a transgender rights activist from Karachi, “our own parents throw us out of our homes. I urge parents to please not do that to their own flesh and blood. Once out on the streets, we are exposed to all kinds of dangers. Please accept us for what we are”.

Once the bonds of family are severed, the transgender people look for a new community of people which can accept them as they are. More educated transgender people take to social media in their search for partners and friends.

A large majority of transgender people from the working class background enter the hijra community, which is a hierarchically organized social network based on a Guru and Cela relationship. The entry of transgender individuals in the hijra community is a highly guarded affair. It is the adoption of an elaborate life style, initiated through a formal process of incorporation in the community.

Although the Pakistani state has begun to take notice of the plight of the transgender people in the country, lasting change in social attitudes towards transgender people will only take place through their integration in mainstream society

The new entrant also has to learn the hijra language, called Farsi, which is spoken and understood in all of South Asia. The transgender community also observes a hijra code of conduct, which has its own set of penalties for offences to regulate the social and economic life of Khwajasara.

Currently, alms collection through Toli, and Vadhai is a losing trend among Khwajasara. Dancing and singing on marriage ceremonies pays a lot more than other traditional sources of income. Brought in as cheap substitutes for female dancers, particularly in working class weddings in towns and villages, Khwajasara are subject to ruthless exploitation and sexual abuse.

Out of sheer poverty, they are forced to indulge in socially harmful and personally degrading forms of indecent work such as sex work. It is considered by most transgender people as demeaning but a necessary evil to eke out their existence. They are willing to give it all up, if they are offered decent work opportunities in art and entertainment.

Although the Pakistani state has begun to take notice of the plight of the transgender people in the country, lasting change in social attitudes towards transgender people will only take place through their integration in mainstream society. The mainstreaming of transgender people in Pakistani society can take place in a single generation, if aided by a robust program of educating and employing transgender people.

A generation of educated transgender people, if employed by the state, can lead to a new generation of transgender people who serve society as doctors, engineers, judges, and professors. This will change the public image of transgender people in society.

As mothers and teachers, the women of the country have to bear the moral burden of educating their families, and to treat their transgender children and siblings with respect and dignity. This will allow the transgender community to fully use its latent potential, which has been held in chains for centuries.