Marginalisation of Transgender Rights Continues in Pakistan

In a bizarre development, Pakistan’s censor board has banned movie Joyland, the country’s official entry for the next year’s Oscars. The movie has been praised internationally and even received top global awards, including the Queer Palm, which is the Cannes Film Festival’s LGBTQ prize. Joyland was scheduled to release on November 18 in Pakistan after the government authorities issued a screening certificate to the movie. While cancelling the film’s license, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, said: “Written complaints were received that the film contains highly objectionable material which do not conform with the social values and moral standards of our society and is clearly repugnant to the norms of ‘decency and morality’ as laid down in Section 9 of the Motion Picture Ordinance, 1979.” The recent banning should not come as a surprise since censorship and political repression are normal in Pakistan and have severely harmed the local film industry.

The case of Joyland

Joyland is a story about a man who lives in Lahore and falls in love with a transgender woman. The censor board claimed that the movie had “highly objectionable material” after Islamic groups accused the movie of “promoting homosexuality,” in Pakistan. Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan, a member of right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) political party, who is spearheading the hate campaign against the film, wrote on Twitter that he was relieved to hear about the ban and averred “Pakistan is an Islamic state, no law, no action, no ideology can be run against Islam.” Furthermore, Senator Khan called Joyland “cultural terrorism” and criticized the Shehbaz Sharif government for the “shameless” act of allowing its release in Pakistan.

Interestingly, the right-wing campaign for banning the movie received a significant support on the social media websites. On twitter, the hashtag – #BanJoyland – has been one of the top trends in Pakistan. The supporters of this campaign are claiming that Pakistan is an Islamic country and homosexuality in any form is “un-Islamic”. Legally, homosexuality is a punishable offense in Pakistan.

It is noteworthy that Pakistan has a controversial history of banning movies, and other forms of art, which are deemed as immoral or “anti-Islam”. Islamic political parties like JI, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl), and Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) have been spearheading the moral policing campaign in Pakistan. More importantly, they are also against the members of the transgender community and have openly issued threats against homosexuality in Pakistan.

Transgenders in Pakistan

Transgenders continue to live a life of misery in Pakistan, even after 75 years of independence, where they are treated as lesser beings and violence against them is acceptable and largely goes unnoticed. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is notoriously infamous for violence against transgender people. According to local human rights groups in Pakistan, at least 65 transgender women had been killed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province between 2015-2020.

 Whereas the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) data claims that at least 20 transgender people were killed in Pakistan in 2021. Pakistan’s penal code criminalizes “same-sex sexual conduct,” placing men who have sex with men and transgender people at risk of police abuse, other violence and discrimination. However, in a landmark decision in 2018, Pakistan’s parliament enacted the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act which gave transgender people in the country the right to choose their “gender identity as they perceived it themselves” and to change it on previously issued government documents.

Islamist groups in Pakistan never welcomed the law and since then have been running a campaign to make amendments in it. JI leader Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan is leading the charge against the 2018 legislation. Opponents of the bill, like Khan, claim the provision to choose or change one’s gender is “un-Islamic” and could open the door to same-sex marriage, currently prohibited in Pakistan.

Hashtags targeting the law such as “amend trans act” and “take back the vulgar bill” were recently trending in Pakistan on Twitter. Besides political opposition against the 2018 bill, Pakistan is seeing further “Islamization” of the society, wherein religious and gendered minorities are witnessing increased violence against them and severe repression at the hands of radical Islamist groups.

Under these circumstances, it is nearly impossible for a liberal movie like Joyland to not face banning and censorship. Shehbaz Sharif-led Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition government has reportedly set up a ‘committee’ to review the ban on movie Joyland.

The decision has come late, after the damage was done and Islamist parties generated enough public support against the movie’s release in Pakistan. Human rights activists in Pakistan are wondering why the government’s ministry banned the movie in the first place and has now set up a committee to review the ban. It is noteworthy that the PDM alliance has some right-wing elements within it like Maulana Fazl ur Rehman’s JUI-F, who may pressure the government on the matter. This incident shows that the right-wing Islamist groups hold significant power on issues related to gender and sexuality in Pakistan. The ban may or may not be removed in the coming days, but Pakistan is fast becoming an uninhabitable place for its religious and gender minorities.