Marvia Malik and a group of her friends are lounging in her room as she gets her makeup done before a photo shoot for a Pakistani fashion brand, and a makeup artist has already been working on Ms. Malik’s face for an hour. When asked how long it usually takes, a friend in the room can’t help but make a joke.
“If we’re talking about Marvia, then at least two hours,” she says, as the whole room bursts into laughter.
Ms. Malik is used to life in front of a camera. Last year, she made her debut as Pakistan’s first openly transgender TV anchor. The apartment, where a group of her transgender friends live, is a safe space in a country where transgender rights are both officially supported and regularly violated.
With her face on both television news and fashion advertisements, Ms. Malik is one of the most visible transgender activists in the country. A government report by the Punjab Social Protection Agency last year found that transgender people are often treated abusively by law enforcement, face public humiliation and are often victims of physical and sexual assault. It means Ms. Malik doesn’t always feel safe. “Because I’m on TV, people can recognize me,” says Ms. Malik. “It makes me uneasy, because transgender people are still victims of crime in Pakistan.”
The transgender rights movement in the South Asian country is caught between a government that is publicly supportive of their rights, and a significant portion of the population that is intolerant. Last month marks one year since Pakistan passed the Transgender Persons Act, a piece of legislation that Amnesty International called “one of the most progressive laws of its kind in the world.”
It was the culmination of years of slow change in attitude in the government sector and multiple fatwas supporting transgender rights, such as one religious declaration that outlined the right of a transgender person to marry. It has made Pakistan among a minority of countries that legally protect a person’s right to self-identify their gender and protects them from discrimination in the workplace and rental market.
Yet two days before the bill was introduced, Amnesty International and local media reported on the death of a transgender dancer performing at a wedding, who was allegedly shot for not having change for a bill worth less than $10. An estimated 500 transgender people have been killed since 2015, according to the Law and Justice Committee of Pakistan.
Ms. Malik had a difficult home life before she was abandoned as a teenager. Now, she has a job, a support system within her community of friends, and her family is coming around to accepting her. “Wherever I’ve gone so far when it comes to work, I’ve never had to deal with much discrimination – I’m lucky about this,” says Ms. Malik, who says violent intolerance is still the norm for poor transgender people, and that many transgender people are refused work.
Activists say Pakistan’s pervasive poverty problems and a low literacy rate are contributing factors.
The transgender rights movement in Pakistan is unusually powerful because of how visible transgender people are as a part of society. That visibility goes as far back as the 1600s, to the Mughal empire, when transgender people played a valuable role as messengers between royal men and women.
That history has played a part in other South Asian countries as well. In Bangladesh, transgender people won the right to vote and run in Parliament this year. In India, a bill has recognized transgender people as equal since 2014, although a rights bill in 2018 was criticized by the trans community as violating their rights and barring them from self-identifying gender.
“In other countries, you don’t see as many transgender people in everyday life,” said Kami Sid, a transgender model and actor who became a well-known activist after featuring prominently in advertising for Pakistani apparel brands. “In Pakistan and India, we have a strong trans culture and history. We are very visible.”
Still, a large part of Pakistani society only sees transgender people as beggars, dancers and workers in the sex trade. Many people only interact with transgender people as entertainers at weddings and celebrations such as the birth of a child or during fortune-tellings. The stigma follows transgender people trying to build lives around other careers.
“In my job interview, they said, ‘transgender people generally dance and sing, so why do you want to be a news anchor?’ ” Ms. Malik said.
She says that her company was understanding after she explained the rights movement, and the media industry has been very inclusive.
Her channel, Kohenoor TV, reached seventh in viewer ratings on her first day as an anchor – a high achievement for a country with more than 30 news channels competing for viewers. “People were curious,” Ms. Malik said.
Activist groups say the next step for transgender rights in Pakistan is to establish support systems for transgender people trying to find work in industries that are new to them, such as Ms. Malik’s TV reporting.
The community has increased its visibility over the past few years, with as many as 13 transgender candidates running for office in the 2018 general elections. That same year, Ms. Sid featured in an award-winning short film, Rani. And earlier this year the Sindh Police, in Pakistan’s second largest province, discussed introducing a quota for transgender officers.
“We still have problems now, but we have organizations that give us more power as well,” said Saima Butt, a social activist at Khawaja Sira Society, a transgender rights NGO in the bustling city of Lahore. “When people see that there are educated transgender people who are organized, people stop opposing us.”
Ms. Butt says her family eventually accepted her, despite carrying a scar on her brow from the beatings she was given. Others have not been so lucky.
“Their families shoot them, sometimes they shoot them in the legs to disable them, they are confined to their homes, sometimes they are forced into marriages, and there are thousands of cases of their hair being cut,” Ms. Butt said.
But Ms. Malik has hope: Transgender children, she says, are now seeing other transgender people not just as members of the poorest classes, but as reporters, aspiring politicians, police officers and activists.
“Our culture is a very strong culture, and it goes from generation to generation. It cannot be erased.”