Transphobia in Commonwealth countries is an injustice left over from British colonialism. It’s time we addressed it

Transphobia is a hangover of British colonialism, and we need to address it

Transphobia imposed on Pakistan, Yemen and Kuwait by the British Empire continues to have a devastating impact on trans people in those countries today, activists say.

Three trans activists spoke to Arya Karijo, a trans journalist in Kenya, about the long-lasting effects of the colonial imposition of transphobia as part of a series for Transgender Day of Visibility, published today on openDemocracy.

Karijo, who began the series curious about what common experiences trans people would share in Yemen, Kuwait, Pakistan and Kenya, told PinkNews that she initially just wanted to know what life was like for trans people “outside of my space, outside of Kenya, outside of Africa”.

“I didn’t want to look at Europe, or the United States,” Karijo explains. “Because those stories are already told a lot. And sometimes it’s the narrative we use to explain our own lives: ‘This is what it means to be transgender, based on the stories from the US and Europe.'”

Karijo spoke to a trans man in Yemen, a trans woman from Kuwait and a trans activist from Pakistan for the three-part series on what life is like for marginalised trans activists.

“What stands out,” she says, “is that while I assumed we didn’t have anything in common, we did – we all had the same coloniser. And [the impacts of] that ran like a common thread through all our lives.”

In Yemen, laws criminalising gay sex, which is punishable by public flogging, imprisonment or death, are a hangover of the period when the region was controlled by the British Empire – which didn’t withdraw from what is now South Yemen until 1967. While being trans isn’t explicitly criminalised, the rigid heteronormativity imposed on the population through outlawing same-sex activity makes it dangerous to be openly trans.

The same is true in Pakistan, where homosexuality has been criminalised since 1860 – when the country was under direct British rule. Pakistan gained independence in 1947, but the British anti-LGBT+ law remains intact and gay sex is still punishable with the death penalty.

In Kuwait, which was under British rule between 1899 and 1961, gay sex is criminalised and punishable by up to seven years in prison, and being trans – or “imitating” another gender, in the phrasing of the law – is explicitly criminalised, too. Human rights organisations frequently report widespread discrimination against trans people in Kuwait, particularly police violence against trans women.

“What I found in all of our stories, is that in the past – two or three hundred years ago, before colonisation, before organised religion – our cultures were completely different,” Karijo says. “It’s really changed. And it makes it difficult not just for transgender people, but for same-sex loving people, and other gender-diverse groups.”

In Kuwait and Yemen, Karijo says, trans people were traditionally recognised for many centuries. But because of British rule, trans people’s existence was erased through criminalisation and openly trans people in the two counties are now seen as a Western invention – because so many contemporary trans narratives are focused on the West.

“Islam before colonisation seems to have been more tolerant of gender-diverse groups. But after colonisation there was a strict order: this is what a woman should look like, this is what a man should look like and no one should cross these lines,” Karijo continues. In Yemen, which has suffered through multiple wars, she points to a militia with “extreme beliefs” taking over and making life for trans people even more dangerous.

In all of the countries Karijo interviewed trans activists in, trans women faced the most transphobia and violence – and this was often inflicted or condoned by the state. Trans women experience violence at the hands of the police and will then be put in male prisons, where they face sexual violence.

“This is very related to the colonial past,” Karijo emphasises. “If we look at Africa, moving away from the Middle East, what we practice now would be seen as Victorian patriarchy.”

Yet in many African cultures pre-colonisation, trans people were seen as “divine” and were celebrated. But since British colonialism forcibly replaced these existing cultures with transphobia, societies have become “more unequal, and less tolerant” – and more dangerous for trans and gender non-conforming people.

In Pakistan, for example, Karijo points to how the British “introduced a very distinct social order, with the British man at the top”. Military tribes were the next level down, followed by smaller tribes. “And women were only referred to in reference to their partners,” she says. “It was a very functional social order and it helped the British govern. But this group of gender-diverse people really disrupted that.”

So, the British criminalised gender diversity, and pushed a whole group of people to the margins of society. Many of these laws – which are the same, word-for-word, in different countries, and all originated when those countries were under direct British rule – still exist today, and still shape the experience of trans people living in those countries.

Pakistan has made progress in dismantling this colonial legacy of transphobia – it was one of the first countries in the world to legally recognise a third gender, in 2009, giving trans people identity cards and legal documents. And as of last year, the government extended free healthcare to trans people, making transition-related care available to all. But gay sex remains illegal in the country under the colonial-era British law.

Reporting these three stories “opened my eyes to the fact this is a much bigger problem than just us”, Karijo says. “It needs to be seen for what it is – a historical injustice.”

“A lot of countries still have this historical injustice, with a law against LGBT+ people and against transgender people,” she concludes. “But no one is willing to see it as a holistic historical injustice and see that in all countries of the Commonwealth, this particular law is generated from colonisation.”

“We need to do away with these laws, and give all citizens equality.”