Defying Transphobia in Pakistan
By Maya Acharya
Kami Sid, a vocal activist and talented dancer, recently made herself known as Pakistan’s first transgender model. Her goal is to break down stereotypes around transgender Muslim identities. Masq caught up with her in Copenhagen, where she was speaking and performing as part of the Aks International Minority Festival - Film Art and Dialogue.
“Art is love. Love is art. And love has no gender. Art is everywhere. Art is about how to express yourself in front of people, how to interact with people through your art. The way I talk is art. The way I’m sitting is art.”
Kami sits with one leg smoothly extended over a chair, her long hair loose around her shoulders. She looks at ease, comfortable in her skin. Her voice is expressive and interspersed with infectious laughs as she talks.
Since the photoshoot that went viral last month, Kami has made waves in Paktistani and international media.
“My activity has always been as an activist, on a ground level, so I had never really been interested in modelling. At the time, when I was shooting, I was like, please hurry up, I want to get home,” she laughs. “But I feel very proud to be the first Pakistani to come out as transgender in this way.”
In Pakistan, where homosexuality is criminalised, and the LGBTQIA community suffer extreme discrimination, Kami’s debut as a model is no small feat. As she points out, “Coming out is a very hard process in Pakistan. It’s not like I can just get up one day and say I’m transgender, no. It’s very hard to accept yourself. And it’s hard to give your whole self to the public, as a body, a speaker, or a public figure. Trans people face many things; there have been twenty-three transgender killings this year. And what about the cases we don’t hear?”
The history of transgender identities in Pakistan is complex. Trans women have historically been accepted and even revered, for example as performers and dancers, or as 'hijra’ - trans women who often live in communities with specific kin-structures. In 2009, trans women were officially recognised as a ‘third sex’ in Pakistan and were given civil rights, including the right to vote. However, the reality for transgender people is still far from ideal.
“Our rights are in draft, they are not implemented yet,” Kami explains. “So we are really looking forward to our state, the government, doing something for transgender rights. They have to do something, because we survive in a very bad way in Pakistan. People call us third gender, but I think ‘what’? If we are third gender, who is the first and second gender – male and then female? We are also human beings. We cannot just be defined by our gender or by being trans,” she asserts.
“I did the photo shoot because I want to break down stereotypes in mainstream society, and show that transgender people can be anything: an activist, a teacher, a model, a doctor, anything. We are people with different talents, we are beautiful. What we want is an opportunity and a platform to represent ourselves.”
For the past several years, Kami has worked towards creating such a platform, by advancing HIV awareness and transgender rights through Naz – an MSM (men-who-have-sex-with-men) and transgender, community-based organisation in Pakistan. Through the organisation's base in Karachi, Kami counsels individuals on sexual health and identity. In addition to this work, she has also travelled the world to deliver lectures on transgender issues, represented her country at international conferences, UN gatherings, and been featured in several documentaries.
Despite Kami’s success and the overwhelmingly positive media response of late, the reactions from some of Kami’s local community and conservative family members have not been as supportive.
“My family are not very understanding, they don’t understand why I do what I do. They ask why I wear girl’s clothes, they think it’s a bad reflection on the family, they say ‘you are a boy’. But I say no, it’s my life, I want to live my own life in my own way.”
Kami admits that this stigma is upsetting and makes her feel low at times. Even getting permission to travel to Copenhagen last year was an injurious ordeal; Kami was denied a visa on the grounds of being ‘homosexual and from Pakistan.’ With help, she went to the media and fought the case, eventually being issued the visa. These sorts of experiences highlight how gender discrimination can dictate mobility, making it difficult to move around in the world if you have a certain citizenship, and if you are honest about who you are.
“The way I am today is not about society, it’s not a choice. The way I am, I am. I believe that God made me like this; no one else can make me like this. I am a Muslim and I really believe in Islam. I was born a Muslim and I will die as a Muslim. I feel proud of that. If anyone in the Muslim community considers me different from themselves, that’s not my burden, it’s theirs. They have to accept me the way I am – that’s it. For me, Islam is a very open religion. The Koran says that we have to love and respect each other; it’s all about humanity.”
Kami exudes a confidence and optimism in the face of difficult experiences that you cannot help but admire.
“I always pray that God will keep my spirit like this, keep myself being honest with all the people around me. Sometimes I do lose my courage because of situations like the one with my family, and the so-called stigma or discrimination against me. But at the end of the day I say, ‘okay, fuck off ’, I know who I am and what I really want to do. If you accept yourself, you are something. If you don’t accept yourself, people will ruin your life, they will damage you, they will threaten you, they may try to kill you. So first you have to accept yourself and set your own boundaries and limits of what is acceptable to you.”
Performing and dancing, especially Bollywood routines, has always been an outlet for Kami’s energy and determination. She was young when she started dancing at family functions.
“At that time, my family appreciated me and the way I danced. But maybe they thought it was okay, because I was a child and that I would outgrow it. It was during this time that I realised I was different, but I never lacked self-confidence. I believe I that no one can stop me. I am unstoppable,” she says.
It’s easy to believe. Kami is powerfully paving the way forward for transgender people in Pakistan. When asked about her hopes for the future, she points to how media and political discourses, especially in Europe, often fail to acknowledge what goes on in the Global South in terms of gender and sexuality. It is also relevant to note that many of the laws banning same-sex acts and relationships in former colonies such as Pakistan, were introduced by British colonialists, and can be seen as a legacy of imperialism.
“We want people to come, sit, and do homework with us on what we need in Pakistan. People focus on the high prevalence of HIV in African countries, but we also have a high prevalence of HIV in Pakistan. People don’t talk about us because we are Muslim. Come to me, talk to me, in my country, and we will change society in a good way. We’re not special people who need special rights, we need equal rights, ” she stresses.
Another one of Kami’s hopes is to bringing the Pakistani LGBTQIA community together by trying to eradicate inter-group tensions and the competition for ideological space.
“If our communities don’t sit together, things will be worse – we have to work together and think about what’s best for the community.”