Arzoo Khan, a 36-year-old transgender residing in Peshawar, has never exercised her right to vote in any election. Holding the position of president within a transgender faction in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and managing a charity named ”Manzil Foundation” for transgender welfare, Arzoo Khan expresses disappointment and resentment towards the government, Election Commission, political parties, and human rights organizations. This discontent stems from the absence of proper arrangements allowing transgender individuals to vote in elections.

Arzoo Khan emphasizes the lack of sessions or projects dedicated to raising awareness among the transgender community regarding the election process. She states, “Our community lacks awareness about the voting process. With no funds or security arrangements, a significant number of transgender individuals are unaware of their voting rights.”

In Arzoo Khan’s view, the government should designate secure spaces to educate transgender individuals about their rights and the significance of voting. By providing an inclusive and supportive environment, the community can be encouraged to actively participate in the electoral process.

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Reflecting on the past election, Arzoo Khan notes that no other eunuchs voted alongside her. The pervasive isolation experienced by transgender individuals, coupled with the fear of public judgment, contributes to this electoral disengagement. Furthermore, the lack of respect accorded to transgender voters at polling stations and uncomfortable searches by male policemen add to their reluctance.

Arzoo Khan points out the challenge of creating separate identity cards (X-cards) for transgender individuals. She explains, “According to NADRA’s focal person, only 32 transgenders across the province possess X-cards. The main obstacle is that fathers often refuse to allow their transgender children to obtain X-cards, fearing potential loss of inheritance. Additionally, transgender individuals avoid making X-cards due to concerns about inheritance rights and access to essential facilities like the Benazir Income Support Programme and Health Card.”

Mahi Gul, another transgender individual from Peshawar, shares similar concerns about the election process, particularly the difficulty in obtaining an X card. A holder of a master’s degree in political science, Mahi Gul acknowledges the potential benefits of an X card based on gender but fears potential repercussions, including exclusion from her family and inheritance rights.

Both Arzoo Khan and Mahi Gul express security concerns that hinder their ability to move freely during elections. Mahi Gul asserts, “I cannot risk my life for that.”

Arzoo Khan advocates for the recognition of transgender individuals as both human beings and Pakistanis with the right to vote and even run for office. However, she laments the lack of support from political parties and human rights organizations, preventing transgender individuals from contesting elections. She calls for the establishment of separate polling stations and booths for the transgender community, emphasizing that this step is crucial for their active participation in the electoral process.

Arzoo Khan concludes by demanding reserved seats for transgender individuals, similar to those allocated for women, if political parties are unwilling to provide election tickets or if security concerns deter transgender individuals from running for office. This, she believes, will enable the transgender community to have a voice in the Parliament.

In efforts to ensure inclusivity in elections, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Election Commissioner, Shamshad Khan, highlights endeavors to facilitate participation from diverse backgrounds, including the transgender community. While election rules already provide separate arrangements for male and female voters, there are currently no distinct polling stations or booths designated for transgenders due to their limited numbers and the absence of a specialized identity card (X card).

Shamshad Khan emphasizes that despite the lack of specific polling spaces, strict instructions are given to election staff to prioritize the needs of deprived sections, including transgenders. Vote registration for transgenders follows the standard process, with the Department of Social Welfare issuing certificates differentiating between male and female transgenders in the voter lists.

Responding to concerns raised by Arzoo Khan, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s Regional Coordinator, Shahid Mahmood asserts the organization’s commitment to supporting the rights of transgenders. Mahmood encourages the active involvement of transgenders in human rights programs, aiming to address their challenges comprehensively. The Human Rights Commission has consistently advocated for transgender rights, including vote registration, election participation, and obtaining X cards.

Khurshid Bano, Chairperson of the welfare organization “Da Hawa Lor,” shares their collaboration with the Election Commission and NADRA over the past few years to address identity card and vote registration issues for transgenders. Recognizing the difficulties in obtaining X cards, Bano mentions the formation of a committee, involving welfare organizations, the social welfare department, and transgenders. The committee’s objective is to educate transgenders about the electoral process, with efforts directed towards securing a separate arrangement for them in polling stations.

While a separate line was allocated for transgenders in the last elections, logistical constraints currently prevent the establishment of dedicated polling stations or booths. Bano notes that most identity cards of transgenders are registered under male names, complicating their organizational presence during elections. Currently, only 50 to 58 transgender individuals possess X cards across the province. Future awareness sessions are planned to enlighten transgenders about the importance of X cards and NADRA procedures, stressing the need for collective advocacy for their rights.

Social and human rights activist Taimur Kamal advocates for the rights of eunuchs, emphasizing the need for facilities comparable to other groups. He proposes not only granting transgender women the right to vote but also the right to contest elections. Kamal suggests reserving seats for transgenders, similar to the 33% quota for women in national and provincial assemblies and the 5% quota for women in political parties on general seats.

Samar Haroon Bilour, the provincial spokesperson for the Awami National Party, supports inclusive elections in the party’s manifesto, addressing facilities for transgenders. However, there has been no internal discussion on reserved seats for transgenders like those for women within the party.

In contrast, Shaukat Yousafzai, a senior leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, underscores the human rights of eunuchs, advocating for their facilitation during voting. Yousafzai suggests allocating polling stations in districts with a higher transgender population and government-sponsored transport for their convenience. He opposes reserved seats, fearing a potential monopoly, and instead recommends announcing a seat for transgenders through an election, allowing them to represent themselves in parliament.

The Election Commission lacks specific data on registered transgender voters in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The 2017 census reports 1,999 eunuchs in the region, while the 2023 survey data is yet to be compiled and released.

Note: This story is part of a Pakistan Press Foundation Fellowship.