Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s parliament has passed a law guaranteeing basic rights for transgender citizens and outlawing discrimination by both employers and private business owners, a move hailed by activists as “historic” for the conservative South Asian country.
Members of parliament voted to pass the wide-ranging Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act in the capital, Islamabad, on Tuesday.
The law accords citizens the right to self-identify as male, female or a blend of both genders, and to have that identity registered on all official documents, including National Identification Cards, passports, driver’s licenses and education certificates.
The law guarantees citizens the right to express their gender as they wish, and to a gender identity that is defined as “a person’s innermost and individual sense of self as male, female or a blend of both, or neither; that can correspond or not to the sex assigned at birth”.
“I thought that this would never be achieved in my lifetime, but I am fortunate to have seen my own parliament pass this bill,” veteran transgender activist Bindiya Rana told Al Jazeera.
“In fighting for this bill, we were not fighting for those transgender people who have already lived 40 or 50 years,” she said. “We have been fighting for the next generation of transgender Pakistanis.”
While no reliable official figures exist for the number of transgender citizens in Pakistan, advocacy group Trans Action has estimated that at least 500,000 of the country’s 207 million population identifies as transgender.
The country’s 2017 national census put the number of transgender citizens at 10,418, a number that has been widely disputed by members of the community.
Often shunned by mainstream society, Pakistani transgender citizens find themselves vulnerable to being forced into begging, sex work or dancing to survive.
South Asian society also has, however, traditionally venerated transgender people – particularly transgender women, known as Khwaja Sirah – as having spiritual powers and the ability to bestow blessings upon others.
“We have been considered only fit to sing and dance at weddings, and that’s it,” said Rana.
“We have been facing human rights violations in that we are denied jobs based on our status,” she added.
“Police will not file cases if someone has committed a crime against us.”
Several attacks targeting transgender activists took place in Pakistan last year, particularly in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
The new law explicitly bans any discrimination against transgender citizens by employers, educational institutions, healthcare providers, transportation service providers and any private business or service provider.
It also calls for the establishment of government-run protection centres for transgender citizens who feel at risk.
It guarantees transgender citizens their right to inheritance – often disputed under some interpretations of Islamic law – to run for public office, to assembly, to have access to public places and several other specific rights.
We have been considered only fit to sing and dance at weddings, and that's it.
Activists in the community say that while there are concerns regarding the implementation of the law, it is a huge step forward for transgender rights in Pakistan.
“I believe that it will make a positive impact on the ground,” said Mehlab Jameel, who was one of several rights activists and lawyers involved in drafting the legislation.
“Laws can only go so far with a community that is so marginalised, especially economically, that they often don’t know what their own rights are,” she added.
Jameel said the new law also provides a base for activists to amend other sections of Pakistan’s criminal and penal code that are problematic or create grey areas around crimes committed against transgender citizens.
“The majority of people in the community never want to report sexual violence, rape or harassment, because they are worried that they could be blamed by the police.
“So, this law allows us to do further advocacy work to amend other problematic laws and policies.”
Amnesty International’s Pakistan researcher Rabia Mehmood praised the move.
“This bill makes Pakistan one of the few countries in the world to recognise the self-perceived gender identity of transgender individuals,” Mehmood said.
“The country’s transgender community has very high hopes from this bill. Its implementation is therefore crucial to ensure they can live their lives with dignity and respect.”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s Digital Correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim