Earlier this month, the Allama Iqbal Open University announced launching a free education programme for transgendered persons, but a couple of years before that, Nisha Rao had set a course for herself to join the legal fraternity.
Nisha’s journey to fulfil her dreams has been riddled with discrimination, humiliation and insensitivity, but she remained undeterred and rose above everything life threw at her. Now in the final year of her LLB programme, her goal of becoming a lawyer is within reach.
Born as Kashif in Lahore, Nisha was enrolled at a private English-medium school. “Until the sixth class, I wasn’t aware of being different,” she recalls.
“Initially, after my classmates made me realise it, I ignored it. But their attitude towards me turned agonising to put up with as the years passed. By the eighth class, I was being bullied and persecuted.”
She still remembers the days when, as soon as she would enter the school, a few of the bullies would gather around her to crack jokes at her expense and everyone would join in the gales of laughter.
“I was so frightened that I never dared complain about them to my teachers or my parents. Every passing day made me feel more alienated and secluded. Adding insult to injury was the attitude of my family towards me.”
She recalls her elder brother’s wedding ceremony, in which her own cousins made fun of her voice and the way she talked and behaved, with none of the elders stepping in to put an end to their mockery.
Instead, she says, the guests laughed at their lame jokes, which added to her worries regarding her gender and her future, as every incident seemed more tormenting than the last.
She remembers another incident from 2004. “On the eve of Independence Day, I took a Pakistan flag to the school, where boys gathered around me and said, ‘Look at this! Now hijras will be waving our flag.’ ”
It was the first time that she responded with anger, and she was severely beaten up by the boys for it, but no one came to her aid. After enrolling at a college two years later, she breathed a sigh of relief, as she found the environment there much better than at her school, and her college teachers were compassionate as well.
Post-intermediate, she came to terms with reality. “By then I was more expressive of my gender. I left my family and came to Karachi, where I stayed with my childhood friend and fellow transwoman, Sona, for three months.”
Nisha went back home expecting her family and neighbours to have missed her, but she was in for a rude awakening. “On my return, all the children of the locality gathered to chant ‘Khusra aa gaya’.”
She ignored them, but when she reached home, she found her own family unwelcoming. She felt like a stranger in her own house. She wanted to continue her education, but her ostracism was getting to her.
Finally, after admitting to herself that her situation would remain unchanged where she was born and brought up, she decided to bid adieu to her family. She informed Sona about her decision, and the childhood friend promised to do everything she could to help her with her goal to continue her education.
Nisha moved to Karachi in 2009, and got enrolled at the Karachi University’s Department of Political Science. She provided private tuition to support herself, but since it was not enough, she learned to dance to pay the house rent and university fees and to purchase books.
“My circumstances kept me away from campus education, but I carried on without losing hope. I completed my master’s in political science in 2013. The day I graduated was the happiest of my life.”
She later joined the Gender Interactive Alliance (GIA), which works for the rights of the transgender community. She moved to Islamabad after she was appointed as treasurer, but due to financial constraints, she left the post and returned to Karachi.
Despite failing to get a job and being faced with other hurdles, she did not lose hope. In 2015 she got enrolled at the Sindh Muslim Law College. “My course has entered its third and final year. Then I shall get my LLB degree. It’s my dream to become a judge. It might seem an implausible goal, but I shall continue striving to accomplish it.”
A lot of things have changed in Nisha’s life over the past few years, but the most prominent among them is her relatives who have started treating her with respect. She hopes that the people who used to humiliate her may find themselves reconsidering their actions now.
Meanwhile, GIA President Bindiya Rana is highly appreciative of Nisha’s struggles and hard work, and terms her a role model for others. She, however, reminds how members of our society still look the other way when it comes to transgender issues. “Transgendered people are symbols of shame and disgrace for their own parents and families. Proper education opportunities, understanding of gender differences and a little empathy would mean a lot.”
Bindiya says that in the current scenario, the overall attitude towards the community needs to be changed so transgender children do not feel marginalised and alienated. “Special measures should be taken for their education in public or private institutions because their most critical issue is illiteracy.” Except for some NGOs, she says, there is no public organisation for educating transgendered persons. “Literacy is the key. If they get an education, they would be able to establish themselves like other people in society.”
Hamid Karim, who heads the Directorate of Elementary, Secondary & Higher Secondary Schools in Karachi, says that at school level transgender children have no identity and may face discriminatory behaviour once in a blue moon. “But there is no restriction on their enrolment because education is the fundamental right of everyone. Government schools, however, have no special arrangements for them, but they can get an education there without fear.”
Muhammad Mashooque, who heads the Directorate of College Education in Karachi, says they encourage transgender children to get higher education. “At college level fellow students may use opprobrious remarks for them because our society is ignorant of transgender issues. Students reflect society’s mindset, which must be changed.”