Queer Liberation and the Pakistani State

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by fatima

This summer, Pakistan’s supreme court ruled that hijras, a name for South Asia’s historic transgender community, will be registered by the state, ostensibly to provide social services and prevent police brutality.

This article from The Guardian written by Basim Usmani indicates that, though the ruling has been lauded by official media and Pakistan’s middle classes, both the motivations and the effects of the ruling are less than liberating for queer people in Pakistan. For one, the judiciary might have been motivated by the desire to target Pakistan’s police, with whom they have a less than friendly relationship, and who is known to frequently crack down on communities of hijras in Pakistan. Another motivation may have been to not allow India to one up Pakistan with their recent ruling that decriminalizes queer sexuality.

Usmani also points out that the ruling is likely to be extremely ineffective in practice, given the history of the Pakistani government’s bureaucracy. More importantly, though, the ruling is certainly not a sign that gender norms are changing in Pakistan.

Others writing on the ruling recognize this last point. SherryX makes this comment on her blog.

All these [moves towards reform by the judiciary] show a paradigm shift in the character of SC [Supreme Court], from judicial activism its moving towards Judicial populism and in the longer run trying to take the position which Pakistan Army enjoys in relation to the weak political dispensation. Whilst the English speaking elites have hailed the decision about the Hijras as some great civil right victory, freethinker elaborates what does it means for the LGBT community of Pakistan, for it means nothing.”

This following article by freethinker frames an important critique: “Gender injustice is a site of revolutionary potential, and that can be lost with the State apparatus formally committed to the ’social uplift’ of the hijra.”

However, freethinker does dangerously flirt with the idea of a “traditional” past as more liberating for queers than modernity. I don’t believe that queer folks should be forced to choose between the patriarchy and heterosexism of the middle classes or the “traditionally minded” forces in society.

freethinker’s last paragraph does sum up succinctly the problems with the ruling. One, it represents a cooptation of the queer movement in Pakistan. Two, it shifts the onus for poverty and forced prostitution on transpeople in Pakistan and not on capitalist society. Three, everyday people have been accustomed to recognizing the self-activity of transpeople in direct conflict with the state. Now, their gender expression is sanctioned by the state.

Usmani does mention, however, that a protest in support of trans rights was held recently in Lahore. There is a certain level of activity among Pakistan’s trans communities that the judiciary and other politicians will have to respond to. In the case of a from below struggle for recognition, this sort of change could and should be seen as a victory. The possibility that Pakistan was responding to India’s recognition of queer rights demonstrates that pressure from below may have indeed led to the ruling, albeit in a indirect fashion.

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3 thoughts on “Queer Liberation and the Pakistani State”

  1. This is an important point from the Sherry X article, which captures the contradiction of state recognition of the struggles or identities of oppressed peoples:

    “When they are seen as another sex category, the gendered body politic of the society comes to regulate and control them as well, their bodies becoming ’sexed’ and providing the basis of a sex role, a body ideal, and a clothing distinction that applies to their sex.”

    Sherry X points out that the terms this law operates on could encourage divisions within queer communities, i.e. between “real hijras” (hermaphrodites) and “cross-dressers.” The state law makes it seem like trans folks “just can’t help who/what they are” making it easier to see them as “clients” or “helpless” in need of state assistance and protection.

    Often a move like this by a state comes after significant mobilizations and challenges from below. Perhaps the Lahore protest indicates that that is or has been going on? I’d be interested to learn more about it. If the maneuvering between factions of the Pakistani ruling class, and between the Pakistani and Indian ruling classes, are really the central influencing factors behind this law, then it makes sense that the law will have no teeth. Because there are not grassroots forces organized enough to force any kind of accountability for its implementation, let alone push for reforms that actually carry meaningful weight for queer and trans communities in Pakistan.

  2. I wonder to what extent we can put this in a broader context of political and social conflicts in Pakistan. How is this a critique of the PPP government and the progressive Left support for that government? How is a queer critique one point of pressure on the “progressive” credentials of the comprador bourgeoisie that some social democrats and communists say they have. It’s no coincidence that this is the whole debate about Afghanistan among the Left summed up.

    I agree that the author’s critique of the comprador claim to modernity CAN go in political directions that mystify the “traditional”. For example, this led Foucault, following his own critique of modernity, to politically support other reactionary state building projects. See the otherwise deeply flawed book by Janet Afrary and Kevin Anderson on Foucault and the Iranian Revolution as an example. But I don’t think this is necessarily the path the author is following.

    Regardless of tendency here, this kind of thinking around this issue opens up a political space. I think this has exactly been the kind of politics we need–critique of the class, gender, sexual, racial, ecological etc., composition of “modernity”. Not to get rid of modernity and return to some more imagined pristine space (i.e. mystification of the “traditional”), but to unleash the full possibilities of modernity from below–its radical democratic potential.

  3. Part of the strength of transgender organizing is it aims to breakdown the gender binary which capitalism reinforces when it makes the heterosexual nuclear family mandatory. But ideally, the aim is to replace this narrow binary with a wide variety of democratically chosen sex and gender expressions. The development of a state-registered “third sex” doesn’t do this – it just replaces a rigid gender binary with a rigid gender triangle. It makes transgender identity dependent on the state, defined by a checklist on a form, not through people’s rich variety of life experiences, aesthetics, and desires. Folks who now don’t correspond to the state’s definitions of “male”, “female”, or “hijra” could still be criminalized. For example, as Lauren pointed, this threatens to divide folks into “real hijras” and “crossdressers.”

    Sherry X’s strongest point is that there won’t be liberation for hijras or for queer folks broadly without a challenge to the narrowly defined patriarchal family. Similarly, gay marriage alone in the US will not lead to queer liberation unless it triggers a deeper mass movement challenging patriarchy itself.

    Finally, the patriarchal family structure can’t be fully overthrown without bringing down the capitalist system that mandates it as the only way to reproduce new workers for the bosses.

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