LAHORE — Over the past few months, the prestigious Al-Hamra Theater in this Pakistani city has been staging a first-of-its-kind play, one that very much pushes cultural boundaries in the conservative Muslim society.
The play, called Teesri Dhun, focuses on the discrimination transgender people endure in Pakistan, where they are often shunned by families, schools and employers. Not only that, but the actors themselves are members of the transgender community.
"The play highlights the problems transgender people face here," says Neeli Rana, 40, who plays the lead role in Lahore. It's a story line that resonates with Rana. "In 2006 I became an activist campaigning for my community's rights because transgender people were not being issued birth certificates and national identity cards," the actor recalls.
"Since they had no information how to get these identity documents I started guiding them," she adds. "I've also been highlighting the problems through protests and through the media."
Transgender people are often the target of discrimination and violence and about 45 members of the community have been killed in Pakistan over the last six months. Aliysha, a 23-year-old transgender activist, was the latest. She was shot multiple times by an unknown man in the northwestern city of Peshawar. She died three days after being taken to a government hospital. Activists blame medical staff for her death, saying their indecision on whether to take Alishya to the male or female wing delayed vital treatment.
Aliysha's death sparked protests by transgender and rights activists nationwide. Jannat, 26, who performs in Teesri Dhun, says she protested in the eastern city of Lahore after Aliysha's death, noting that discrimination at hospitals is common.
A protest against torture and acts of discrimination against women and transgender in Pakistan — Photo: PPI via Zuma
"Once I went to a hospital, where the doctors asked me different questions like how much do I charge for having sex," she says. "They taunted me and asked, 'Oh, do you also need treatment?' I was so disturbed that I went away without getting any medical care."
Transgender people face a difficult life in Pakistan. Abandoned by their families, they often live together in small groups in slums. To earn a livelihood, they beg for money on street corners or dance at weddings. Rarely educated, many end up in the sex industry.
"Before we used to dance at carnivals to earn a living. But those have been stopped because of the terrorists," Rana says, referring to terror attacks that have taken place in crowded spaces in Pakistan.
"So now, when sources of income end, then what will the community do?" she asks. "Most have already started begging. If we indulge in sex work, this is not by choice. Society forces us into it."
Actors from the play Teesri Dhun getting ready backstage — Photo: Teesri Dhun's Facebook
In 2010, the community celebrated a historic victory when Pakistan's supreme court ruled that transgender people have the same rights as other citizens. The court ordered the government to issue them national identification cards and provide them jobs.
Although a third column of "transgender" was added to identification cards, the promise of jobs and social welfare remains elusive.
With the surge in killings of transgender people, activist Zehrish says protection is vital. "Had our rights been enforced, transgenders wouldn't have been killed like this," the activist says.
People in the transgender community say that the social mindset toward them needs to change. "The most important thing is acceptance at the family level," says Jannat. "Many parents object to the natural inner self of the transgender, beating them, forcing them to act like men. In the end, they kick us out of the house."
She adds: "Pakistani society must accept us as a reality like it's been accepted in Europe and other countries. We are also human beings just like anyone else."