“When will we stop using the word ‘khusra’ as an insult?” asks model Mehreen Syed. “It’s just the Urdu word for transgender and when we use it so carelessly, as a curse or a joke, we are putting down an entire gender. About 99% of the people around us don’t even realise that they are doing this. It’s just such an ordinary part of our everyday conversation.”
Having recently worked with the transgender community, Syed has observed their struggles firsthand. Twelve years ago, she set in motion the International Fashion Academy Pakistan (IFAP), a vocational training centre that aims to empower individuals struggling to find financial empowerment and works in conjunction with ICARE, an NGO focused on helping the underprivileged.
According to Syed, to date the institute has jumpstarted the careers of 5,026 trainees, making them proficient in hair and makeup skills and grooming them so that they get hired at salons, offices or as beauty advisors that help market beauty products.
These trainees have included members of the transgender community in the past but this time, in collaboration with the Punjab Skills Development Fund (PSDF) and Akhuwat, IFAP has sought to specifically train 35 trans people. In her capacity as an ambassador of the transgender community designated by the PSDF, Syed and her team visited Lahore’s transgender communities and gathered a group of people interested in learning hair and makeup skills.
“We have trained them but just as significantly, we have worked on building their self-confidence,” explains Syed. “They have a very strong sense for aesthetics and I feel that they work with greater focus than their female counterparts.”
Why so? “I think that all their lives, they have to work very hard to prove their worth. People are unwilling to hire them. There is no waiting area in public places designated for them and random men feel that there is nothing wrong in fondling them.
"Many are turned out of their homes at a young age and are adopted by the transgender community. Eventually, most have to resort to becoming dancers, beggars or even worse, prostitutes. When a woman gets raped she can at least gather support and try to get justice. When did anyone ever stand up for the rights of transgender people who get raped? No one bothers even though this community very frequently suffers harassment,” she says.
“I have listened to their stories while training them and they truly shook my soul.”
Under the aegis of IFAP, the group was encouraged to be proud of their identity. “We have guided them on how to deal with people as well as how to earn,” outlines Syed. “I am so happy that the majority of trainees have now gotten jobs.”
Most of the trainees are now working at salons and spas while one has been hired by a school. But training a handful of trans people hardly changes society’s careless treatment of the entire community.
Syed asserts, “For the longest time, there wasn’t even a gender category recognising them on our CNICs and they had to declare themselves as either ‘male’ or ‘female’. This has changed thankfully, but so much more needs to change."
She believes that more than anything, society needs to acknowledge their identity. "This community wants to be recognised and respected. Till when can we refuse to give this basic human right to them?”
And for how long can children be allowed to tease each other by using the word ‘khusra’? Or women describe a bad makeup job by alluding it to the transgender community? No one really pauses to think of what a transgender person must go through, sitting in a crowd where their gender is being reduced to a joke. Raped, murdered, abused and ridiculed — financial empowerment of the transgender community is a step in the right direction but it is merely a step.