This week, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that hijras, (transgender individuals) should be allowed to choose an alternative sex when they apply for their national identity cards. The News reported,
The court directed NADRA (National Database and Registration Authority) to expedite efforts for issuance of National Identity Cards (NICs) to eunuchs, besides registering them as she-males. The court observed that eunuchs are Pakistani citizens, but they are deprived of various rights, including the right of having NICs.
The BBC quoted Brigadier Ehsan ul-Haq of NADRA who told reporters after the ruling, “Transgenders wanted recognition for their community. Why not reflect them as having a separate identity?”
According to the Guardian’s Declan Walsh last year [also see this great audio slideshow by Walsh], Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has been a proponent of hijra rights, warning police “to cease harassment and intimidation.” Prior to this week’s decision, Pakistan’s court also ruled two years ago that this community had the right to refer to themselves as the “third gender.” The shift has caused one leader of the hijra community to comment, “Times are changing. Our community feels good for the first time in 60 years.”
The traditional occupation of the transgender community consists of “begging for alms when bestowing blessings on male babies and at weddings,” noted Nabiha Meher Sheikh in this piece [recommended reading for those who'd like to read more background]. “Most of their songs are about pregnancy and their dances are mostly parodies of pregnant women.” Although many claim to be “professional wedding dancers,” Walsh reported that campaigners say their main sources of income come from begging and prostitution. And despite a degree of cultural acceptance (hijras have been part of this society for centuries, and were courtesans during the Mughal Empire), the transgender community is often persecuted and harassed.
But about two years ago, the government began hiring hijras as tax collectors, going door to door to shame people into paying their taxes. It’s a practice that the Indian government also began in 2006, and transgender individuals would receive 4% of any taxes collected (via the BBC). Sajid Hussein Bhatti, a tax superintendent who gives Riffi, a hijra tax collector, orders every morning, told CNN for a recent report, “Their appearance causes great embarrassment amongst the people.” CNN further noted,
We followed them as they visit a series of electrical appliance shops. The first debtor insists there’s been a mistake and the bill’s been paid. The second is less amenable, so the team threaten to come back 24 hours later, half a dozen strong — and dance in the shop. That just may be enough to get a tax bill settled.
I first read about this tactic last year, in Adam Ellick’s piece for the NY Times, “Tax-Free Living in Pakistan.” He reported, “For many of the TGs [Transgendered people] hired by the Clifton board, tax collecting is their first salaried job, and two of them still work as sex workers…[they] have collected $100,000 in about nine months, 10 times the cost of the program.”
Obviously, Pakistan has an enormous tax issue, with only 1.9 million out of 170 million filing tax returns last year. Some would argue that hiring hijras as tax collectors is novel and a positive step for this community, because it’s engaging them in society and providing them employment. But I have a hard time agreeing with such a notion. If we truly wanted to bring TGs into mainstream society as respected citizens, why give them roles that ultimately exacerbate the stereotypes and stigmas attached to their community? In that sense, should this recent development regarding national identity cards be taken with a grain of salt, seen as a political concession for this tax collection tactic?
Shehzadi, a hijra interviewed by the BBC, told the news agency, “Getting jobs and ID cards is great, but when I die, I know the community will have a party, spend all my money, and then it will be as if Shehzadi never walked on this earth.”