The Duck of Minerva

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Pakistan’s Supreme Court Recognizes Third Gender

December 28, 2009

Wow. If the use of non-binary-gender-codes on census forms is an indicator of progressive human rights law, Pakistan has now left the US in the dust:

Late on Wednesday, the Supreme Court in Pakistan ordered that the government officially recognize a separate gender for Pakistan’s hijra community, which includes transgendered people, transvestites, and eunuchs. The court told the federal government to begin allowing people to identify as hijras when registering for a national identity card.

Such cards are necessary for everything from voting to more informal situations; patrons must present the card at cybercafes before surfing the Internet, for example. Not having an identity card, or having one with incorrect information, leaves a person vulnerable and easily excluded from society.

In India, voters are required to identify their sex both on their voter ID cards and at the polls. The insistence that they identify as male or female effectively barred many transgendered and transvestite people from the polls until late this year, when the government declared that for the purposes of voting it would recognize a third option.

The ruling in Pakistan, though, potentially reaches much further.

In addition to the order for government recognition, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry also issued a warning that the hijras’ rights of inheritance, which are often informally ignored, would be enforced, and that police harassment would not be permitted, a sign, perhaps, of rulings to come.

When I teach Gender and Security I often have my students do an exercise to debate how one would code the relative gender-egalitarianism of different states. There are many indicators – fertility rates, percentage of women in the labor force or the government, presence or absence of laws criminalizing marital rape. The WomenStats database has more. But most of them capture (or stand proxy for) women’s empowerment rather than absence of gender hierarchies in a society per se. So when I read of this I wondered if gender-coding in census data should be understood as a useful measure of a state’s commitment to gender inclusiveness.

The counterpoint is, of course, is that such a ruling (or human rights law in general) may mean little in a country where women, gender minorities and those who defend them face such persecution by the state and tribal elites.

Question for readers: how significant is this ruling as a step toward gender inclusiveness in Pakistan? Should other countries follow suit and should human rights activists press them to do so?

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.