Fifty clerics in Pakistan issued a fatwa, or religious decree, saying that transgender people can marry under Islamic law — but only if they do not have "visible signs of both genders."
The clerics, affiliated with the Tanzeem Ittehad-i-Ummat religious law organization based in Lahore, said that a transgender person with "visible signs of being a male" can marry a nontransgender woman, or a transgender woman with "visible signs of being a female." But a transgender person with "visible signs of both genders" cannot marry anyone, the fatwa stipulated.
The decree also said that transgender people must not be deprived their share of inheritance, and said it was sinful to humiliate, insult or tease people for being transgender.
The two-page decree, which is in no way legally binding, ended by saying that all funeral rituals for a transgender person would be the same as for any other Muslim man or woman.
Transgender people are among the most marginalized groups in Pakistan. Being transgender is treated as taboo subject, and in many cases, transgender individuals are deprived of their legal rights to marriage, inheritance and a normal burial.
Last month, a young transgender woman named Alisha was shot eight times, and died after hospital staff took an hour to decide whether to put her in male or female ward.
Pakistan's transgender community and activists cautiously welcomed the decree, saying it was a breath of fresh air, but that it would hardly change their day-to-day reality.
"This decree is not legally binding and will hardly make a difference. But we are happy that somebody talked about us, too," said Farzana Naz, the Peshawar-based president of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chapter of Trans Action Alliance, a transgender advocacy group. "The real issue is the marriage of the transgender person carrying 'visible signs of both genders,' and the decree disapproving of their marriage."
She said that attitudes still needed to change. "There have been decrees in favor of transgender people for centuries, but torture and humiliation have not been ended. We want the state to treat us normal citizens."
In 2012, Pakistan's Supreme Court also declared equal rights for transgender citizens, including the right to inherit property and assets.
Zia Naqshbandi, head of the organization that issued the fatwa, said that there was only one section in the decree about transgender marriage, while the rest dealt with their rights generally. "We issued the decree after the increase in violence against them in society," he said.
Naqshbandi said that the clerics issued the decree in order to help convince the state, society and the families of transgender people to accept them. "They should have the right to health, education, a job and inheritance," he said. "They should be registered by the state and a job quota should be fixed for them. We have been asking the state and society to mainstream them."
But he said it would still be wrong for a transgender person with "visible signs of both genders" to marry. "It is 'hiram' (sinful), but they can enjoy all other rights." Pakistan's law forbids same-sex marriages, and gay men are charged under anti-sodomy laws.
Qamar Nasim, a Peshawar-based transgender rights activist who also works with Trans Action, said that at least 46 transgender people had been killed and 300 were raped or tortured in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the past two years. His group has collected data on these crimes from 15 districts in the province.
But police routinely undercount the violence against transgender people, he said. "The police in the province have registered cases of not more than 22 murders of the transgender in the province, while rape and torture cases are hardly reported," he said.
He said that the decree had opened a window of opportunity for the community.
"But will this decree change the attitude of the state and of society toward them?" he asked. "I doubt it."
Sahi is a special correspondent.