Namkeen smiling dressed in pink.
Photo: Rubban Shakeel/IRC

34-year-old Namkeen has been working for the IRC for the past two and a half years. As a transgender woman, she’s faced discrimination and harassment but, against all odds, she’s determined to uplift the transgender community. Through her work as an activist and as the IRC’s Gender Equality and Social Inclusion Officer, Namkeen is working with the most marginalised communities in Pakistan, ensuring they receive support and are able to access important services.

We spoke with her about her work for the IRC and what it’s like to be a trans woman living in Pakistan.

What are the challenges for the trans community in Pakistan?

The transgender community in Pakistan feels very distant from the mainstream community. Often when we express ourselves, many trans people will be kicked out of their family homes and become isolated. With no family, people become vulnerable and face many difficulties. 

When a child is forced to leave their house at 15-years-old, they have no choice but to leave school at this time too. So many trans people aren’t able to get a proper education. 

Leaving their community behind also makes it hard to access health facilities. It’s common for trans people to face discrimination from doctors and hospital staff when they try to access health services.

There are stereotypes and taboos in our society that transgender people work in the sex industry. Because of these stereotypes, trans people are often unable to find other opportunities for livelihood.

So the transgender community often experience a lack of livelihood opportunities, health services and education. These institutional and behavioural barriers contribute to why trans people feel left behind in society in Pakistan.

What kind of obstacles or discrimination have you faced personally?

When I was a boy I experienced harassment and violence, even from my family. In the beginning, they would question why I would act a certain way and hammer it into me that I was a boy and should act like one. But my inner essence was that of a woman.

Families and communities can’t understand our gender so they compel us to act like boys. My dad would beat me and question why I would want to wear women's clothing. In school, I had to deal with harassment from the boys there. They’d bully me and call me bad names. 

Namkeen applying her make up
“Your mode of gender expression should not stop you from doing anything that you want to do.”
Photo: Rubban Shakeel/IRC

I had my family’s support in terms of education. I studied a master's in political science and a Bachelor of Arts but I faced discrimination and harassment at the same time.

Applying for jobs wasn’t an easy process. Many organisations would say that hiring a transgender person would be dangerous for them. Community and security personnel would object to it. 

But now I’m grateful that I can be a role model for my other members of the transgender community in Pakistan. I have a strong personality and I have the skills so I can compete with mainstream society. My education gave me this confidence.

What is the IRC doing to support you as a staff member and the wider trans community in Pakistan?

I'm very proud that I am a part of IRC as the first trans woman working for IRC Pakistan. 

After two and a half years at the IRC I'm proud to say that I feel very relaxed. The environment of IRC is very inclusive and supportive for transgender persons.

I feel very good that I fully participated in every type of activity here in Pakistan. I'm a member of diversity, equality and inclusion in the regional council and I'm also a gender champion here in our office. The IRC gives me the opportunity to make the environment more inclusive for other diverse types of group staff members.

Here in the office, all the staff are sensitive and they call me by my preferred name. My email address was originally my birth name, but through this transformation, I changed my email ID name into my preferred name, which made me very happy.

The IRC has supported me by providing private transport to the office. Before, I had many problems taking local transport. I faced a lot of harassment from the community. So IRC Pakistan gave me a special allowance so I can safely travel between my home and office. 

Namkeen looks out the window
“When a transgender person tells me “Namkeen did a lot of good for me”, it gives me motivation and I feel strong that I can do something. So this gives me the motivation to do more and more.”
Photo: Rubban Shakeel/IRC

IRC Pakistan is also working to empower the transgender community in their programming. We have different types of sessions that are specially arranged for the transgender community, which support their specific needs. As many of the trans community lack education, we empower them with literacy and numeracy skills. We also promote different types of skills like coping with stress and emotions. 

Do your family and friends support you now that you’ve transitioned? 

Living in a Pashtun culture has a lot of heavy stereotypes. So it’s very difficult for our communities to accept us. My family do not accept me being a trans woman. They accept me as a boy, as their son, but they will not accept me as their daughter. So it has been difficult for me. 

All these issues revolve around the fact that we have to learn more about gender. We have to deliver sessions on gender to these communities. They feel and believe that there are two genders, male and female, and there is no other gender. So in this Pashtun culture, it is very difficult for people like me to survive. When we live with our own families we cannot identify ourselves as transgender and our gender is never fully able to be expressed. 

In our specific transgender culture, I'm very inspired by my guru. My guru is also a transwoman who teaches us how to survive in this community. They give us a space. They welcome us. They understand that we’ve left our families and are estranged and never had the option to express ourselves fully. So they teach us what we need to survive. How to do makeup. They give us womens’ clothing. The guru helps us in all these ways and takes us under their wing as a parental figure. 

Namkeen and her guru.
“Our guru give us a space. They welcome us. They understand that we’ve left our families and are estranged and never had the option to express ourselves fully in front of them. So they teach us what we need to survive.” Namkeens guru has inspired her to help people.
Photo: Rubban Shakeel/IRC

My guru inspires me to help people provide support, mentorship, and to console and help those that come to me. My hope is to help my community in the same way and to lower all the difficulties and hurdles that they face. 

Do you work a lot with young Afghan transgender people, and can you tell us a bit about that experience? 

There are a lot of transgender Afghans residing with us because we are very near the border. For the last 30 years, they have been residing with us but since the recent situation of Afghanistan more young transgender women migrated here. They are residing with us like our sisters. 

In our community, we are beyond boundaries. There are no territories. We just see a person who is just like us, so they become a part of our community – irrespective of their passport or their nationality.

What progress have you seen being made for the trans community in Pakistan?

The Pakistan Government have passed a very good legislation on transgender rights called the “Transgender Protection of Rights Act”, which passed in 2018. But implementation of this act is lacking. In the act we have several safeguards for transgender persons, it ensured a lot of facilities and rights for the transgender persons, but on the ground, there is no implementation of that act. If the act was implemented transparently, the situation would be better.

The NGO sector is doing a lot for the transgender community including IRC Pakistan. They are including the transgender community in their initiatives. 

The goal is still very far away, and we have to do a lot of things. Any other projects we have coming up at the IRC, such as education and health, we need to make sure that the transgender community is included. However much we can; we must advocate for transgender rights on several levels. At the government level, with different coordination with the NGO sector.

Namkeen sitting beside a stove ready to prepare tea
“I want all the activists to please come forward and join hands with us to do more for our marginalised people in the shape of education, health and other civil rights.”
Photo: Rubban Shakeel/IRC

And what are your hopes for the future? 

My hope is for a bright future, not only for myself but for all of the trans community. I am optimistic. I hope that in near future the transgender community will be empowered and they will have the same rights that the state gives to other citizens. Our aim is that we have an inclusive Pakistan, where there is no discrimination of gender or on basis of sexual orientation. Irrespective of religion, creed, caste, I hope we all have equal opportunities.