The question of identity

UN Development Programme
3 min readSep 10, 2021

By Jamil Akhtar

Masooma is a community mobilizer at Dareecha, an organization working to raise awareness about, and the prevention of, HIV/AIDS. Photo: UNDP/Jamil Akhtar

What is the bigger tragedy — never finding your true self or finding it and not being allowed to profess it?

What is worse — not being acknowledged at all or having your existence derided? What is better — finding safety in silence and invisibility or facing violence for claiming your place in the world?

Speak to any transgender person in Pakistan and they can tell you countless heart-wrenching tales of cruelty, oppression, exploitation, apathy, and disenfranchisement that they have had to suffer throughout their life. Even though a landmark 2009 Supreme Court judgment gave them the right to declare themselves as transgenders on the Computerized National Identity Card, it was only in 2018 that the law provided more freedom and rights to transgender persons.

Saro Imran is a young transgender activist from Multan who is working on educating and creating livelihood opportunities for transgender community members. She advocates for social rights, HIV/AIDS prevention, and economic empowerment. Photo: UNDP/Jamil Akhtar

Although the state has recognized the possibility of there being more to the idea of gender than the rigid boundaries of a patriarchal society, the society itself is still far from such an acknowledgment.

One’s identity is not limited to category on a certificate of citizenship. It is the sum of all their qualities, beliefs, personality, looks and the way they choose to express it all. Gender identity is a vital part of our sense of self, as it defines our relationship with our society and the world at large. For the thousands of Pakistanis struggling with self-identity, their internal turmoil starts with the realization of their gender non-conformity and may even lead to gender dysphoria, a distressing psychological ailment caused by genetic factors as well as environmental ones.

Social psychologist Peter Winereich has defined identity as “the totality of one’s self-construal, in which how one construes oneself in the present expresses the continuity between how one construes oneself as one was in the past and how one construes oneself as one aspires to be in the future”.

From this definition, one can deduce that memories are the building blocks of identity. What sort of identity would one build if all their memories are those of pain and suffering, of an absence of love and respect, of poverty and deprivation, of degradation and violence?

Erik Erikson, the psychologist famous for coining the term “identity crisis”, says: “In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.”

Sheela (left) is a community mobilizer at Dareecha, an organization working to raise awareness about and prevention of HIV. Nadia Khan (right) is a paralegal and activist from Swat. Photos: UNDP/Jamil Akhtar

How alive can someone feel when they are caught up in a constant battle with both the worlds, within and without?

The conditions may be grim and the environment hostile, but the transgender people of Pakistan are refusing to put up with it anymore. They are working to educate and empower their own community, sensitize society and influence legislation. They are finding their voices and raising them for the good of their community and by association, the society.

They have initiated a process of identity negotiation that will lead to them being recognized as equal members of society with the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else.