Interview with Muhammad Salman Khan on Trans and LGBTQI+ Community in Pakistan
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: When it comes to family background, was religion important in it?
Muhammad Salman Khan: Religion holds quite a lot of significance in the Pakistani society I live in, my family has always been moderately Muslim but still “Muslim”. Growing up it played a significant role in my life too, but not anymore. As far as my family is concerned now, it is a private matter and I’m quite fortunate to be blessed with a family where religion is never taken that seriously as compare to families of my around me.
Jacobsen: How did this influence personal upbringing?
Khan: Religion holds quite a lot of significance in the Pakistani society I live in, my family has always been moderately Muslim but still “Muslim”. Growing up it played a significant role in my life too, but not anymore. As far as my family is concerned now, it is a private matter and I’m quite fortunate to be blessed with a family where religion is never taken that seriously as compare to families of my around me. Growing up and still living in Pakistan, religion dictates every aspect of our culture and daily life. I have always struggled with my religious beliefs, there was a time when I was 18 when I was quite religious but that changed when I questioned the religion I was born in. I questioned it because I found many of its religious connotations as being somewhat too fundamentalist and extreme for my personal belief. I have always been a die-hard nature lover and staunch Darwinist; religion never gave me the answer to the origin of life that’s why I had to question it. I further wanted to know more about myself and the religion of my ancestors that’s why I did a brief comparative study of religions and was attracted to a more Sufi and dharmic interpretation of religion in my early 20s. In the meanwhile, I struggled to reconcile my faith with my sexuality this when I slowly and gradually gave up on it.
Jacobsen: What is the treatment of transgender people there?
Khan: Transgender community or the “Khawaja Serai” as they’re called in Urdu, is an ancient community that has been living in South Asia for thousands of years. Transgender community in South Asia were once held in a very high regard, they were considered as a blessed community and due to many superstitious views that people held the transgender were not only revered but people were afraid to even harm them. Unfortunately, in Pakistan quite a lot has changed, this year alone around more than 10 transwomen have been murdered and the law enforcement agencies/ ministry of human rights fails to implement measures to protect their lives. Pakistan has recently passed one of the most progressive legislation on trans rights and equality, but as activists we look forward to effective and fast forward implementation of this law across law enforcement agencies and government departments. The recent passage of the ‘Transgender Bill of Rights, 2018’ has been hailed as a significant victory by many human rights and LGBTQI activists who view this as a significant victory that can page way for more sensitization and equality for all oppressed gender and sexual minorities in Pakistan.
Jacobsen: Do the restrictions and social punishments come from religious traditions? Those restrictions and social punishments against members of this minority community.
Khan: Much of the prejudice that the LGBTQI community faces stems from the religious traditions which ultimately shuns them from the mainstream society. I personally don’t blame ‘Islam’ as a religion to cause this, the issue is its interpretation. Most religion have a varying degree of acceptance and tolerance for the LGBTQI community, especially when it comes to Abrahamic religions which aren’t so tolerant and accepting. But around the world, we are seeing that religion is not taken up as source of inspiration for legislation that seeks to promote LGBT equality and rights. This is one of the reason why around the world, we are able to see legislation passed in rights of minorities e.g. LGBTQI community.
Jacobsen: What happens during the coming out of someone in Pakistan? This tends to be a big moment in life for finding public acceptance for the sexual orientation and gender identity minority communities.
Khan: For most gay men, coming out can be the most difficult moment of their lives. Many don’t even chose to come out like in the way we see gay men come out in the West. The fear of being disowned, ostracized or worst killed by your family and society is just too real. Fortunately, I am blessed with a very small and not so conservative family, despite belonging to the middle class background I believe I’m quite fortunate that they aren’t only accepting of me but are accepting of my sibling as a transwoman too. In Pakistan, even transwomen aren’t mostly accepted by their family or the society they live in. Most are forced out of their homes at a very young age and many had to deal with sexual abuse at a very early age.
Jacobsen: Who are some prominent activists? Why should people pay attention to them?
Khan: Some of the most hard working and committed transgender activists that are always there for the community and I really feel deserve to be highlighted are following, Nisha Rao, Bindiya Rana, Aradhiya Khan from Karachi, Maavia Malik, Laila Naz, Jannat Ali from Lahore , Nayab Ali from Okara, Uzma Yaqoob and Bubbli Malik from Rawalpindi, Farzana and Nadra Khan from KPK.
Jacobsen: What are the most extreme consequences for those who do not hear to the faith or the majority sexual orientation or gender identity? What are the least extreme consequences?
Khan: The most extreme consequences for those who aren’t belonging to mainstream cisgender and heterosexual narrative of Pakistani society is a life of discrimination, often we see in case of gay men even lesbians that they are forced into marriage, while transwomen being a more visible minority are discrimination for their gender identity, they face the threat of human trafficking and gender based violence also. The least, which is unfortunately quite prevalent and common is constant bullying, harassment and psychological trauma that many LGBTQI face in a deeply conservative, homophobic and transphobic society of Pakistan.
Jacobsen: What are some effective activist efforts to garner more and more acceptance for this community?
Khan: We are seeing that the collective effort of the transgender community was able to spearhead and pass the legislation for their rights from Pakistan’s National Assembly. There is much positive reception of the transgender community in the media than ever before, a lot of work needs to be done but many transgender and queer activists are bringing forward much needed visibility and social change that are slowly but gradually changing the age old regressive views against the transgender community.
Jacobsen: Looking ahead, how can people donate time, money, skills, and professional networks to help this community inside of Pakistan and from outside of Pakistan into Pakistan?
Khan: LGBTQI allies at home and aboard are more than welcome to contribute their time and effort in support of the LGBTQI activists working at such great personal risks to their lives. I would like to see more LGBTQI activists and organization’s from the neighboring countries and aboard come forward and initiate programs for cross cultural dialogue and strengthening capacity of LGBTQI human rights defenders from Pakistan.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Muhammad.