Lack of Coverage on Transgendered Pakistanis Shows Bias in U.S. Media

The Huffington Post
Posted: August 19, 2009 03:44 PM
By Sanjeev Bery

It probably wasn’t the first time that someone had organized an Independence Day cricket match in Pakistan. But it almost certainly was the first time that such a match occurred between a team of professional cricket players and a team of transgendered Pakistanis.

As the Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported, the transgendered team won.

Known as hijras, transgendered Pakistanis and Indians have historically lived in their own communities and within their own cultural contexts. The word hijra combines a range of sexual identities — gay crossdressers, hermaphradites — who identify as female, and male-to-female transgendered individuals. In Indian and Pakistani English, words like “eunuch” and “transvestite” are often used in place of the word hijra.

Of course, it goes without saying that many Pakistani hijras, like their Indian counterparts, live challenging lives of discrimination and social stigma. That is why it was such positive news when the Pakistani Supreme Court recently ruled that transgendered citizens cannot be discriminated against in Pakistani government welfare programs. The Court also directed the government to take specific steps to ensure their well-being.

In the words of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, “Eunuchs are also the citizens of Pakistan and should be given basic fundamental rights guaranteed in the constitution.”

Of course, even the most sophisticated consumers of American media are unlikely to be aware of such developments. Why? Because American media outlets didn’t report on them. For American reporters and editors, Pakistan only exists in the context of security concerns: the Taliban, terrorism, fundamentalist Islam, and the war in Afghanistan.

Outside of this context, there is no Pakistan.

By comparison, consider how the U.S. media reported on related developments in India. When the Delhi High Court threw out an Indian law banning gay sex, American newspapers trumpeted the news. As the New York Times reported, “In a landmark ruling Thursday that could usher in an era of greater freedom for gay men and lesbians in India, New Delhi’s highest court decriminalized homosexuality. ” Plenty of other U.S. media outlets sounded off too.

Taken on its own, this focus is a good thing. The expansion of equality deserves to be reported on, whether one is writing about the Indian Supreme Court’s decision in 2009, or the U.S. Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 that ruled similar bans unconstitutional across the U.S.

But the heavy U.S. coverage of the Indian Supreme Court’s decision also fits into a pre-existing Western narrative of India. As the story goes, India is a growing democracy and a rising economic power. In that context, the story of the expansion of Indian equality easily resonates in the American mind. Not only is the U.S. simultaneously addressing similar challenges faced by gay and lesbian Americans, but there is a strong underlying belief that democracies perfect themselves over time through an expansion of liberty across society.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s story of expanding equality for transgendered citizens doesn’t quite fit the pre-written American narrative. After all, Pakistan was supposed to be on the verge of becoming a “failed Islamic state.” How can the same country possibly have a Supreme Court that bars discrimination against a sexual minority?

The story of the Pakistani Supreme Court decision poses other challenges to the dominant narrative as well. Dawn identified the individual who brought forward the claim on behalf of transgendered Pakistanis as Dr Mohammad Aslam Khaki, an Islamic jurist. As reported in Pakistan’s The News International, Dr Khaki “told the court that eunuchs were discriminated [against] everywhere, including hospitals, schools and colleges,” and that “eunuchs should be provided with an opportunity to interact with other segments of society including journalists, lawyers, ulema and the like.”

You can imagine the cognitive fit that such a news story might induce in the mainstream U.S. media. How can an Islamic jurist advocate for transgender communities? Why weren’t there Pakistani riots when the decision came down?

To make things even more interesting, it is worth pointing out that the Chief Justice who issued the Supreme Court ruling isn’t some isolated bureaucrat disliked by mainstream Pakistani society. No, Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry is actually a highly popular judge who was once removed from power by the U.S.-backed military dictator Pervez Musharraf. He was subsequently put back in office by a massive movement of hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis who marched on the capital of Islamabad twice.

While the Bush Administration was pumping billions of U.S. tax dollars into Musharraf’s regime, Musharraf worked hard to protect his reign by dismantling the rule of law at home. Independent courts have a way of interfering with dictators’ designs, so Musharraf replaced Chief Justice Chaudhry and his peers with more “compliant” judges. It took the protests of two “Long Marches” to bring the real Chief Justice back to the Pakistani Supreme Court.

None of this, of course, fits within the dominant U.S. narrative on Pakistan. First of all, transgender equality in Pakistan isn’t a security issue. Second, Muslim jurists and courts aren’t expected to advocate for the rights of sexual minorities. Third, it carries the subtle implication that U.S. support for Musharraf actually delayed the pursuit of equality for an aggrieved community.

No wonder the mainstream U.S. media couldn’t find space for this story. It just doesn’t fit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: