Despite twin bombings at the Awami National Party offices in Karachi this Saturday—an inauspicious start to polling day—Bindiya Rana, one of Pakistan’s first transgender candidates, remained optimistic. Rana’s spent the last several weeks canvassing the alleys of district P.S. 114, handing out self-printed promotional material between concrete buildings under tangles of telephone wires. After several tense months—130 civilians have died in pre-election violence—she was deterred by neither the danger or her slim chances of winning. “The important thing is to face this world very boldly,” she said.
In Pakistan, gender issues have historically been prone to violence—Malala Yousafzai made international news when she was shot on a school bus by the Taliban last year—but overall women’s rights have been slowly improving. The country appointed its first female foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, and data from the Election Commission show a 129 percent increase in the number of female candidates since 2008. At 22.5 percent of its electoral body, Pakistan now has more female officials than the United States does. But improvements haven’t trickled down to many of the country’s female citizens; in 2008, Pakistan had 564 polling districts where not a single woman voted.
It’s even worse for Pakistan’s transgender community, estimated to include 50,000 people. Rana became politically active in 2004, when a close transgender friend died from blood cancer. When the grieving Rana attempted to send her friend’s body home to her parents, the police officers humiliated her, asking questions about her and her dead friend’s sexual proclivities. Rana was appalled by the experience, and frustrated by the general lack of resources available for transgenders.
With the help of only a dozen people, Rana ran for the Sindh provincial assembly solely on funds raised from friends and family members, with a total budget of less than $1,000 U.S. dollars. She took motorcycles and taxis to go hand out her campaign materials because she can’t afford a car. Her logo, printed at the top of each pamphlet, is a woodpecker. “I picked a woodpecker as my symbol because it’s known as the king of the birds,” she explained in a Skype interview. “It works hard with its own beak and makes its own holes.”
This resonated growing up, Rana explained, because “there was a sort of emptiness inside me, I was seeking something.” She played with her dupatta, tossing the scarf over her head. “I used to wear my sister’s clothes,” she said. “And use lipstick and powder and nail polish. I wanted to play with dolls and be in the kitchen.” Her parents disapproved when they found her in makeup, beating her. “Because of the abuse, I ran away from home twice,” she said, finding solace with a community of transgenders in Punjab. Rana was lucky. Eventually her parents came to retrieve her. “We compromised,” she said, “because they were afraid of losing me.”
Rana was comparatively lucky. Many trangenders who leave home wind up in bonded labor, and have difficulty getting an education or finding jobs. The concept of legal representation wasn’t even in the range of possibility until 2011, when a Supreme Court ruling awarded hijiras a third gender option on Pakistani national ID cards, and transgenders became eligible to vote and run for office.
But just because transgenders’ legal status has changed doesn’t mean their social status has. Some of the people Rana has encountered support her efforts, but she also draws vehement critics. “What, are all the men dead now, that we would elect a transgender?” she mimics.
The criticism isn’t idle in Pakistan, where even uncontroversial candidates running for election risk their lives. On May 7, an explosion at a political rally killed at least 25 people, and wounded scores of others, including one of the candidates. “For 45 years of my life I was never afraid,” Rana said. “But for the last three months, I’m afraid for my life.”
She gets threatening anonymous phone calls late at night from public phones. She’s stopped sleeping in one place, staying with a rotating cast of friends and family. Rana approached government officials for security, but they haven’t given her more than a van that she can sometimes use while campaigning. “They are just waiting for me to get injured or raped before they will take any kind of precautionary measures,” she said, talking with her hands as her worry worked up. “And then all the people who are with me might get injured too.”
Of the five other transgender candidates on the ballot this spring, two others dropped out. Mazhar Anjo, a.k.a. “Nick,” running in a nearby district, quit because people fired shots at her house. “Here if someone dies or someone is killed it only becomes a headline,” Rana said. “The very next day everyone forgets whether the person existed.”
In this environment, the people in her district, regardless of their sexual orientation, want very simple things from their elected representative. “The people I talk to, they ask for clean water to drink, better schools, health facilities, to pick up the garbage on the street,” Rana said. “But even though I’m representing this oppressed class,” referring to everyone in her low-income neighborhood, “fighting for our rights, no one is with me,” she said. “Sometimes I feel very alone.”
Still, she’s trying to stay positive. “Win or lose, it doesn’t matter,” she said, the sun streaming behind her into her bare room. “The main thing was to draw the attention of people toward the transgender community, to have people believing transgenders can do anything a normal man or woman can do.”