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KARACHI – Hundreds of transgender activists and their supporters protested in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi Sunday to campaign for equal rights and raise awareness of discrimination against the community.

The protest comes days after the local release of “Joyland”, a controversial Pakistan movie about a married man’s affair with a transgender woman that was initially banned following complaints by Islamist groups.

“The time has come for us to tell people who we are and what our demands are,” protest march organiser Shahzadi Rai told AFP.

“We are human beings and have the same heart, the same feelings, and same emotions that you have.”

Despite a rich history in South Asia, most transgender Pakistanis are forced to live on the fringes of society – often resorting to begging, dancing at weddings, or sex work for survival.

Protesters chanted and sang while carrying placards calling for the rights of the transgender community.

A prominent slogan was “Women, life and liberty” – a rallying call for the current women-led protests in Iran. “No matter what our gender … we should get equal rights,” popular Pakistan classical dancer Sheema Kirmani said.

Participants gave fiery speeches and put on lively dance performances, and also held a symbolic funeral for transgender victims of violence.

According to Amnesty International, 18 transgender people have been killed in Pakistan since October last year.

Transgender people were legally recognised as a “third gender” by a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2012.

They were then given the right to vote, equal access to employment and education, and the right to identify their gender on the national identity card through hard-won legislation in 2018.

But that law is now being threatened by some legislators and right-wing religious parties who claim it is a sign of encroaching Western values and promotes homosexuality.

“There was momentum for acceptance of transgenders, but religious parties made this Act as part of their political agenda just to gain seats, undermining the respect of our gender identity,” Zarish Khanzadi, a trans woman taking part, told AFP.

Discrimination against transgender people in Pakistan often translates into honour killings, rape, and other types of physical violence.

“Joyland”, a Cannes prize-winning movie and also Pakistan’s entry for next year’s Oscars, was banned by the government last week for being “clearly repugnant to the norms of decency and morality” of the country.

The movie had earlier been cleared by the national censorship board, which again gave it the green light after the government ordered a review. AFP