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Social Exclusion Meets Social Distancing: COVID-19 & the Rights of Transgender & Non-Binary People

*By Noor Bano Khan


Sitting alone in my apartment in Washington D.C., many irrational thoughts cross my mind as I navigate my way to completing assignments, papers and everyday tasks. One thought that warrants particular attention amidst all the ranting is how life as we knew it has been upended by this pandemic. The concept of social distancing is new in Pakistan and many other countries around the globe that have been affected by COVID-19. But for a certain class of people, nothing much has changed. The norm of their lifestyle has just been converted to a global norm. These people are transgenders across the world, but especially those residing in religiously conservative societies such as Pakistan.

Credit: Getty Images

A moment of reflection will allow you to see that social distancing was already a part of life for transgenders/ non-binary individuals; socially, economically, as well as culturally. Over the years this community of people have been marginalized time and again on one pretext or the other. They have suffered physical and emotional violence while being sidelined from our formal economies and access to many basic facilities such as healthcare. Biased religious interpretation has been used to declare them ‘haram’ and ‘unnatural,’ to looking down upon them culturally, and to selectively invite them to dance at celebratory functions only. This community has been routinely harassed and discriminated against without any recourse to legal action and with utter disregard of core principles of human rights, enshrined in the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and several other human rights treaties: the right to equality and non-discrimination.

In fact it is fairly recently, that the Supreme Court of Pakistan in a petition titled Dr. Muhammad Aslam Khaki v. S.S.P (Operations) Rawalpindi, PLD SC 188 (2013), granted transgenders the right to vote and to have themselves registered as a ‘third gender’ to obtain national identity cards. This judicial push is what ultimately prompted the enactment of Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act,2018 which recognized and granted them the status of a citizen and all the rights that flow from it.

From a transgender or non-binary person’s perspective, it was precisely this imposition of “social distancing” by other members of society, which had granted them invisibility over the years; robbing them of their identity and significance. For most, their sole source of income has been begging on the streets, soliciting sex work, or being employed as intermediaries at the basic level in service industries recently. Available data and statistics, though currently limited, shows that the transgender community is significantly impacted by COVID-19. So, while we keep daily wage workers in mind, let us also try and keep the transgender community in our minds.

While a tightly knit community within themselves, they already live in isolation from the rest of society. Previously, transgenders have been refused access to health care and emergency facilities even when one was brutally raped and fatally shot. Let us not only hope, but make sure that during this pandemic no such discriminatory treatment is meted out to them.

With their community structured on a congregation model, these individuals are extremely vulnerable already. Many studies have stated that such individuals may have pre-existing low immunity systems due to the high probability of exposure to other diseases such as HIV and cancer. To top this off, many out of fear for life and/or embarrassment hesitate from getting requisite treatment during ordinary circumstances, let alone these unprecedented times. It is no coincidence that the social class that these individuals belong to, may make them more susceptible to contracting and transmitting the coronavirus.

So, has this pandemic forced them to adopt a different lifestyle? No. But maybe for once it might be able to help us all understand what it feels like to be “socially distanced” from, to be marginalized on a regular basis while we all go on with our lives normally. While we reflect on these current global events, let us all use this time to think about gender inclusion and come out of this pandemic resolved to integrate the transgender and other non-gender binary communities within our societies.


*Noor Bano Khan is a Fulbright Scholar currently pursuing her LL.M at American University - Washington College of Law D.C. and is an advocate of the High Court in Pakistan.

The views expressed in this entry belong solely to the author.


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