PESHAWAR, Pakistan – You cannot talk to Gulalai in the language of her adopted country. Despite living in Pakistan for the past 17 years, she has been unable to properly learn Urdu and remains confined to her native Pashto. As a member of the transgender community, language is just one of the barriers she faces.
“I never learned Urdu because I rarely go out of the small world we have created for ourselves [to stay safe],” she says in Pashto.
Gulalai left Afghanistan when she was only eight years old. Now a shy 25-year-old, she speaks only when spoken to.
Whatever the constraints of her life in Pakistan, she is certain that it offers a better future than her birth country, to which Pakistan is coercing waves of former refugees to return.
Only fragments of memory remain from Gulalai’s childhood somewhere in the suburbs of the capital, Kabul. She was born a boy but realized as a small child that she was meant to be a girl. Her parents were determined she would grow up to be a “man,” and when she failed to live up to this, they beat her.
The punishments were harsh and relentless. Aged eight, she found the courage to run away. From Kabul she made her way to Jalalabad, where she found some protection from others in what we would now know as the transgender community.
All that is left from her family memories are some pain and wistful thoughts of her lost younger brother. She remembers him having a limp, but cannot recall his name. “I always wonder what happened to him,” she says.
Once in Pakistan, she was introduced to someone she was told was a guru – an elder in the transgender community – who took her in. Like so many trans youngsters, she grew into one of the only professions open to her, that of a dancer.
“Most of the transgender people are either thrown out or run away from their homes at an early age,” says Farzana Jan, a transgender activist whose home in Peshawar is a meeting point for the community. One of the leaders of rights group Trans Action Alliance, based in the capital of KP (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) province, she explains the bind that Gulalai and others are in: “They neither get formal education nor any professional training. So they can’t get into a profession deemed respectable by the rest of society.”
Among those who do not become dancers, Farzana says, many find work on Dalazak Road, Peshawar’s red-light district. Dancers are in demand for public events such as weddings, and Gulalai remembers how she shook with fear on her first outings.
“I realized that I would have to dance in order to survive because my guru expected me to earn money. We are often teased, groped and abused by men.”
However, even this precarious life is now under threat.
Pakistan is determined to send Afghan refugees back, after a string of terror attacks blamed on Afghan insurgents. Many Afghans face police harassment in Pakistan and have elected reluctantly to return. But even this option is complicated for Gulalai.
“I’m neither an Afghan national nor a Pakistani national,” she says, her face wrinkling into tears.
Gulalai’s estrangement from her family means she has no record of her birth or paperwork to support her Afghan citizenship. Unable to prove her Afghan nationality, she has not been registered by authorities in Pakistan as a refugee.
When a deadline was announced for Afghans to leave Pakistan, many transgender refugees turned to Farzana Jan for help and advice. “I told them I would try my best, but even then, I knew I couldn’t do much,” she says.
Life without papers is claustrophobic for Gulalai. She cannot travel to other cities without an I.D. card to show at the security checkpoints; this also prevents her from something as straightforward as having a cellphone registered in her name.
“I can’t have a SIM [card] in my name because I’m not registered in the Pakistani government’s database.”
Gulalai shudders at the notion of going back to Afghanistan. Like all members of the trans community, she has heard the horrific tales of violence in the country of her childhood.
“We have received several videos of violence against the transgender community in Afghanistan,” says Farzana. “In many areas of Afghanistan, the body parts of transgender people are chopped off before they are killed.”
She relates the story of one transgender Afghan refugee who left Pakistan three years ago. “She started dancing at weddings in Jalalabad [in eastern Afghanistan], but was soon arrested by the police because it’s forbidden to do so.”
“She’s still stuck in an Afghan jail where she’s forced to live in the men’s section, often getting harassed and abused.”
The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), which is facilitating the return of hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees from Pakistan, has faced criticism for legitimizing what critics say amounts to forced returns.
Duniya Aslam Khan, the UNHCR spokesperson in Pakistan, says the agency is aware of fears among the Afghan trans community and would make them a priority: “Transgender people are more than welcome to contact us to discuss their issues. We understand their issues and are very sensitive toward them.”
Trans Action Alliance says they have repeatedly approached the UNHCR for help in registering stateless transgender refugees, but received no response.
Gulalai’s fears are shared by Sapna, a 22-year-old transgender Afghan who identifies as male, who came to Pakistan with his parents in the 1980s. Sapna is a self-taught tailor and embroiderer, but has struggled to find work in Peshawar.
He says that he survives thanks to the close bonds of the trans community, some of whom bring their clothes to him to repair. Like Gulalai, Sapna is stateless – a citizen of neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan.
“In other countries, if you were born and lived there for 10 years you could acquire their nationality but not in Pakistan,” he complains. “I don’t want to go back to Afghanistan and get butchered there. I would prefer to be punished by the Pakistani government.”
Amna Nasir contributed to this report.