Karachi, Pakistan – When Pakistan goes to the polls on July 25, there will be 25 transgender citizens acting as election monitors in 18 constituencies, with the Free and Fair Election Network.
Some 13 transgender candidates will contest the election, with two hoping for a national assembly seat and 11 bidding for a provincial seat.
And thousands of Pakistanis who identify as transgender will vote for the first time as transgender citizens.
This series of firsts comes after a landmark law passed in May. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act allows citizens to self-identify as male, female, or a mix of both genders, and to have that identity registered on official documents. It also guarantees rights such as inheritance and running for public office or assembly and outlaws discrimination.
At least 500,000 people identify as transgender in Pakistan, a country of 207 million, and at least 55 have been killed since 2015, according to the TransAction Alliance advocacy group.
In Karachi, a city of 20 million people, activists and members of the community claim that although the legal framework may be in place, it is not being implemented.
For instance, some transgender individuals told Al Jazeera that they faced challenges at the authority responsible for issuing identity cards to process their documents.
Activist Bindiya Rana runs Gender Interactive Collective, an advocacy group for transgender rights.
She bid for a seat in the 2013 election, but will not run this year.
She claims that the form to file her nomination at the election commission office did not include an option for transgender under the gender section.
“It was the same [form] as the one from 2013 and there was no gender denoted for us,” she told Al Jazeera.
“If I am fighting for rights of [transgender citizens] and the nomination paper has no provision for me, then why am I doing this? We are legally entitled to have that, our bill has been passed in the national assembly, so why must we accept only male and female boxes?”
A source at the election commission, who did not want to be named, pinned the blame on the National Database and Registration Authority’s administration.
Student activist Aradhiya Khan said she faced difficulties when attempting to organise her identification documents.
“I had a previously issued ID card as a male, and it was a lot of trouble of getting a new one. When I went to the National Database and Registration Authority, I was asked for a medical test.
“How does a medical test decide if I am a transgender when the government has given me the provision to identify myself as one? The discrimination has no end in sight.”
She added that the experience brought back painful memories of her school years, when she would “pretend to be a male” to cope.
“And still during my school years, I was raped by the boys who were older than me,” she said. “I would hope that we can get reserve seats in the national assembly like women do.”
Sixty seats are reserved for women in the national assembly, and 10 for minorities.
“There’s no visibility in legislation, and unless we have visibility there is no chance for change,” said Khan. “Our community will have to step up and come forth and be that change. There has to be inclusiveness, but there also has to be participation from our community.”
Faced with continued discrimination despite the change of law, many transgender individuals are forced to beg or earn money by dancing.
Ayesha Khan, 23, is a dancer and sex worker.
She lives in a narrow room with two other transgender dancers, Sonam and Munni, who she takes care of under the guru-chela (teacher-student) system, which offers support to transgender individuals.
“We are not involved in politics, to be honest,” Khan told Al Jazeera. “Who has time for [a political system] that doesn’t care about us? What have these leaders done for the so-called normal people, and why would they do anything for us?”
Sonam, 28, was young and in school when Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister, was assassinated and remembers crying over the killing.
Bhutto’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is a candidate for prime minister this year with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
“If I do vote, I’ll vote for her son now,” Sonam told Al Jazeera. “I think he has his mother’s ability to make the public feel they are important and believes in being inclusive. It’s the best option for us.”
Sonam claimed that at the last election, after waiting for five hours in a queue, her vote was declared void.
“It was such a waste of time. Should I waste another a day on a system that doesn’t care about us?” she wondered.
Members of the transgender community told Al Jazeera that recently, they were invited to meet a PPP politician to discuss their daily challenges. The PPP leadership was unavailable for comment.
Munni, Khan’s other roommate, believes that younger, educated politicians are more understanding. The 26-year-old said she will also vote for the PPP.
Nirma, 37, dances and begs for money.
She said she is often harassed by men or asked for her “rate’, an insulting experience.
“I didn’t bother registering my vote, because there is no transgender running in this constituency. We want our own people to come forward, someone who we can vote for, and someone who can carry our issues,” she told Al Jazeera. “I’m an educated person. But dancing at functions doesn’t make money every day. Begging is the only option I have.”
Marvia Malik is Pakistan’s first transgender news anchor.
She works in Lahore, the capital of the Punjab province.
In an interview in March, she demanded that the government reserve seats for transgender citizens in the upper and lower houses of parliament.
“It’s given me a platform,” she told Al Jazeera, of her job in the media. “In this newsroom, man or woman, everyone is equally respected, and I get paid equally, if not more, compared to other news anchors.
“We don’t need separation. We need more inclusion, and to be part of the society. We need to be in the same schools and colleges, same hospitals, same opportunities.”