In Pakistan, Nayyab Ali risks her life to protect transgender people

Her friends describe her home like a railway station, with people always coming and going, seeking support or refuge. She also runs a school-slash-shelter, where members of the Khawaja Sira – a centuries-old term that has come to describe transgender communities in Pakistan – can learn the Quran in a safe environment.

And now, as the head of the Transgender Protection Unit of the Islamabad Police, Nayyab Ali acts as a bridge between the trans community and law enforcement, showing up at crime scenes and ensuring cases are dealt with in a serious manner.

Why We Wrote This

Progressive laws don’t necessarily translate into safer streets. That’s why Nayyab Ali is dedicated to providing safe harbor for Pakistan’s transgender community.

Despite progressive laws defending the rights of the trans community, violence and discrimination remain common throughout the country. Many crimes go unreported due to mistrust between trans people and the police, who are often “more interested in treating trans individuals as objects of curiosity” than in processing their complaints, says Ms. Ali. As a victim support officer, she strives to break that cycle.

For Naina, one of the women staying at Ms. Ali’s shelter, knowing she was going to speak to someone in the community gave her the strength to report that she had been threatened with murder.

“Now that there’s someone who fights for us, we feel confident speaking up for ourselves,” she says.

Islamabad

In the basement of a residential building in a developing part of Islamabad, a dozen or so transgender women are sitting in a circle on the floor. Not one of them is a stranger to personal tragedy; each has been the victim of violence and exclusion. There is Naina, whose neighbor tried to have her killed over a domestic dispute; Rabia, whose landlord made her beg to earn her keep; and Mehak, who was abused as a child by one of her cousins.

That they are able to tell their stories without reticence or insecurity has much to do with their immediate surroundings. Here, in the Khawaja Sira Quran School, they are under the protection of Nayyab Ali – one of Pakistan’s most prominent and influential trans activists.

Ms. Ali founded the school as a space where members of the Khawaja Sira – a centuries-old term that has come to describe transgender and third-gender communities in Pakistan – could come together and learn the Quran in a safe environment. It also doubles as a shelter where transgender women can stay if they are left with nowhere to go, something Ms. Ali describes as a frequent occurrence.

Why We Wrote This

Progressive laws don’t necessarily translate into safer streets. That’s why Nayyab Ali is dedicated to providing safe harbor for Pakistan’s transgender community.

Despite progressive laws defending the rights of the Khawaja Sira community, violence and discrimination against trans people remain common throughout the country. Five trans women were murdered in March alone this year, and many other violent crimes go unreported due to mistrust between trans people and the police. In her work with the Khawaja Sira Quran School, and as a victim support officer with the Islamabad Police department, Ms. Ali strives to create safe spaces for trans people – something experts agree is desperately needed, even as efforts are made to include trans people in civil society and government.

Nayyab Ali visits a hospital as part of the Medical and Dental Outreach Program for the transgender community. The prominent trans rights activist runs the Khawaja Sira Quran School and also works as a victim support officer with the Islamabad Police department.

“The trans community in Pakistan is not safe at all,” says feminist academic Farzana Bari, who served as the director of the gender studies department at Quaid-i-Azam University. “If you look at transphobic crime in Pakistan, it seems to be rising. … At the same time, we also see that the trans community has become collectively organized and developed a collective voice. ”

First point of contact

Many of those who come to stay in the shelter first encounter Ms. Ali in her role as the head of the Transgender Protection Unit of the Islamabad Police. The department – the first of its kind in the country – was created to eliminate the gap between the community and law enforcement by placing a trans woman as the first point of contact for victims.

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