This Muslim country’s support for transgender rights shames the U.S.

This Muslim country’s support for transgender rights shames the U.S.
Photo: By Tab59 - Flickr: Mosquée Masjid el Haram à la Mecque, CC BY-SA 2.0,

A Muslim country is about the last place you’d expect to be at the forefront of transgender rights. Yet Pakistan has been taking steps to recognize its transgender citizens that would be considered far too radical for a supposedly tolerant nation like the U.S.

Pakistan’s latest move is especially bold: sending transgender youth to serve as volunteers for this year’s Hajj, the annual trek to Mecca, Islam’s holiest site. The decision is a de facto challenge to conservative Muslims who vociferously oppose any form of LGBT rights.

In fact, the decision by Pakistan is just the latest in a line that undermines widely held notions about Muslim attitudes toward transgender people. As an added sign of just how far advanced Pakistan is relative to the U.S., the Hajj volunteers are being drawn from the Pakistani equivalent of the Boy Scouts. Some 40 transgender Scouts took their oath to the organization last week.

‘We feel that we are being recognised as equal citizens of Pakistan as the level of acceptance among society at large has been increasing gradually,’ transgender activist Farzana Jan said.

As the beneficiary of another Pakistani policy, Jan would know. Pakistan allows transgender people to choose “X” as their gender on their passports. Jan was the first person to do so.

The Pakistani census also allows people to identify themselves as transgender.  Pakistani religious leaders have declared that transgender people can marry and be buried as Muslims when they die. 

None of this is to say that Pakistan is a paradise for transgender people. Violence is common, as is discrimination. Transgender Pakistanis are often shunned by their families. But in terms of policy at least, Pakistan is well ahead of the U.S., which is still fighting over bathrooms.

Pakistan is not alone on the list of surprisingly progressive countries. Nepal and India both count the transgender population in their national records. South Africa bans antitransgender discrimination.

A country with transgender Scouts, non-binary passports and an inclusive census seems radical by U.S. standards. As Pakistan shows, that says a lot about U.S. standards.

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