City, Inequality and Trans life: An analysis of heteronormative urbanization

Ciyt,inequality and Trans life: An analysis of heteronormative urbanization

Inequality with its numerous manifestations is often intrinsic to urban development. The contemporary neoliberal approach towards urban development can generate socioeconomic and spatial disparities, which in turn create a political atmosphere that benefits a few at the behest of the others. A number of studies have pointed out how modern cities, especially in the Global South, are divided by socioeconomic classes, race, ethnicity, and religion.

However, only a dearth of literature highlights the complex and multidimensional division that exists in terms minority gender groups in cities of the Global South. Ethnographers who spent months or years studying the detailed and mundane aspects of life in urban areas have devoted very little space in their published work to the existence of sexual minorities who also inhabit these spaces (Beebeejaun, 2017). Gender minorities like the LGBTQ and Transgender community are especially vulnerable to marginalization that results from the non-heterogeneous and heteronormative structure of modern cities, which usually lack inclusive spaces for these groups.

As Yasminah Beebeejaun underscores, modern urban planning has created a gendered environment that is predominantly suited to the needs of a single gender group i.e., men within a set gender binary (Beebeejaun, 2017). Thus, coupled with heteronormative penal-codes and legal structures of modern nation states, exclusive urbanization engenders a regime of fear, terror and violence that pushes gender minorities towards breathless peripheries. This basically means that not only the basic rights such minorities are compromised in the modern urban setting, but they are also spatially contained in their own communities with less to no links to the mainstream. As a consequence, usually one finds members of transgender community engaged in low-wage labor, including sex-work, with low literacy, and confinements in ghettoized settlements. Similarly, they lack access to better health and education facilities, which often makes them susceptible life-threatening health conditions like HIV/AIDS.

As it is argued in this article, this is mainly because the prevalent patriarchal processes imbued in the course of urbanization encourages spatial divisions in terms of gender by discouraging the inclusion of gender minorities like transgender into the mainstream. Moreover, it is argued that lack of nuance in the gender discourse remains one of the biggest impediments in achieving inclusive urbanization goal for the cities of the Global South, as encapsulated in the New Urban Agenda of the UN-Habitat (United Nations, 2020). This is also a point of concern for the emerging feminist discourse in developing countries, which, often unintentionally, continue to strengthen the binary categorization of men and women under the guise of reclaiming urban spaces. This, however, can be easily countered by incorporating aspects of intersectional feminism, which, sees gender oppression beyond the normative binaries. Lastly, to present a case for these insights, this article explores the current situation of the transgender community, commonly known as Khawaja Siras of the two major cities in Pakistan, Karachi and Lahore.

‘Right to City’, Gender Minorities and Urbanization

The idea of the ‘right to city’ was first coined by Henri Lefebvre in 1968. The idea in regards to urbanization entails that everyone, regardless of their political, personal, or socioeconomic position, should not be excluded from the share of the city under liberal-democratic values. As Anantakrishan explains, the idea further underlines that individuals who are involved in the process of urbanization by the virtue of being citizens of the state, should have a right to benefit from the growth and development of the urban society (ANANTAKRISHAN, 2018).

These ideas now form the foundations of the UN agenda of human rights. UNESCO and UN-Habitat, for example, have incorporated provisions based on the idea in their New Urban Agenda (H-III) (United Nations, 2020). The Agenda aims to foster collective and inclusive urban societies, in which individual, regardless of their minority status can enjoy freedom of mobility, can have easy access to basic facilities like health and education, and enjoy a general sense of tranquillity. The agenda also establishes a shift from normative structures of urbanization in which major groups can politically exploit minorities through majoritarian-democracy. In this sense, it discourages the solidification of heteronormative and patriarchal values in urban spaces, which in turn can benefit gender minorities and can encourage them to acquire a just share in urban development.

However, regardless of the emphasis on achieving equal rights for all the individuals, gender minorities, especially the Transgender community, remains marginalized in contemporary urban settings. Empirical research about the status of transgender community shows that they are more likely to be homeless than their cisgender heterosexual counterparts of same socioeconomic status in urban settings (Shelton, et al., 2018). This is usually because they are asked to leave home under family pressure when they reveal their gender identity. This is a potential source of severe depression and other mental health issues (Mason, 2021), which are often common in the gender minorities (Mason, 2021). Similarly, they frequently face barriers to housing and employment, as they are subjected to care rooted in heterosexism and cisgenderism, as well as widespread discrimination and misunderstanding from service providers and employers. Moreover, compared to their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts, LGBTQ experiencing homelessness report higher rates of substance abuse, engagement in the sex industry, mental health symptoms, and victimization (Cochran et al., 2002; Corliss, et al., 2011; Gangamma et al., 2008; Gattis, 2013; Walls, Hancock, and Wisneski, 2007).

A large portion of their lives are still spent in efforts to achieve equal rights in urban spaces. Annually, several LGBTQ rights movements are held throughout different cities, which are often met with violent and suppressive crackdowns. These struggles are usually rooted in the vision of overcoming the exclusionary and oppressive hierarchies that dominate the ideas of heteronormative urbanization. Most of these institutional structures and hierarchies are offshoots of the process of colonization, and de-colonization subsequently. For example, anti-homosexuality penal codes were incorporated in the mandates and constitutions of former colonies like India, Pakistan, South Africa, and so on, during the British rule which was largely influenced by the missionary ideology of Christians (Han & O’Mahoney, 2014). The colonial hangover stills define how cities of these states operate and have made cities exclusive and unsafe spaces for transgender people.

Much like the class, formal/informal duality, and other forms of disparities the process has generated, gender hierarchies are also well intertwined with post-colonial urbanization. Patriarchal norms of the colonial state are still prevalent in several post-colonial cities. Under these norms, on one hand, while men are considered to be the primary force behind the process of development (mainly because they are considered more ‘masculine to take up the hard job), women are considered more or less secondary to the process as they only aid the former in the process (by taking care of them at home, for example). On the other hand, other genders are completely absent from the discourse. This is mainly because their identity is purposefully disregarded because of the setting heteronormative structure of colonial societies, which often did not consider any gender beyond the male-female binary. For example, it was not until 2018 that Pakistan recognized transgender as a gender group, albeit controversially ( Beitrag & Selby, 2018). Interestingly, sexual intercourse between two transgender remains penalized under Article 377 of country’s penal code. Similarly, recognition of other gender minorities remains a dilemma because of the inherent discriminatory ideology of the Pakistani nation-state — which is largely a mix of colonial and medieval ideas.

In this regard, the environment through which the goals of the New Urban Agenda can fully materialize is missing. The systemic oppression and otherization of gender minorities including the Transgender community and other LGBTQ groups stand as an impediment in achieving inclusivity for the population. Urban spaces still operate under the ideology that discriminates, and in many cases even criminalizes, equal rights for the Transgender community. This is also the reason why many people who identify themselves as Transgender live in dilapidated conditions and are usually forced to live in ghettos (Costa & Pires, 2019) in metropolises of the Global South. Consequently, they are also subjected to violence in form of homicides, honour killings, rape, etc., and generally lack state protection against such crimes.

Transgender Community and the Case of Karachi and Lahore

Karachi and Lahore are the two main metropolises of Pakistan. According to the population census conducted in 2017, just above 10,000 transgender are living in the country (cite). Of which about 2000 are estimated to be living in Karachi and other urban areas of Sindh. On the other hand, the number of transgender living in Lahore and other urban regions of Punjab is estimated to be around 4500. These figures are widely contested by trans-rights activists like Bindya Rana and Mona Ali, who estimate that there are more than 300,000 Khawaja Siras, as they are known, living in Lahore alone. The figures are underreported mainly because of two reasons: (a) usually, the national identity cards classify transgender as ‘male’, based on their biological phenotype; and (b) a great number of the transgender in Pakistan do not hold a national identity card, and thus, are not counted as citizens of the country in the census ( Ebrahim, 2017). The undercounting not only reflects systemic discrimination against transgender but can also have serious consequences for the already marginalized community. As Anis Haroon of the National Commission on Human Rights notes, if their numbers are not fully reflected it will affect policies to bring them at par with other citizens, they will be deprived of their share in education and jobs ( Ebrahim, 2017). Not only the undercounting undermines the pledge made by the Government of Pakistan in 2018 to fully recognize the identity of transgenders and to provide them basic facilities like access to quality health and education facilities. It also undermines the idea of the ‘right to the city’, as the transgender community does not even have basic citizenship to claim their right in the process of urban development.

Similarly, the consequent underrepresentation of the transgender community has resulted in their marginalization in urban spaces. Since the group is regarded as a very small minority in the cities of millions like Karachi and Lahore, problems concerning transgender are largely overlooked by the policymakers. There is a very small number of privately operated health clinics especially dedicated to transgender in both Karachi and Lahore. Similarly, there are fewer to no educational and training institutes for the transgender community in these cities. The community usually relies on health clinics that cater to the general population and are often refused treatment because of societal stigmatization. The general perception is that transgender are ‘unclean’ and ‘dirty’ because they are engaged in sex work — something vociferously damned in the Islamic Republic. However, less attention is paid to the systemic inequality in regards to their right, which, among other reasons, forces them to engage in prostitution.

As Nani Begum, a Bengali trans-sex worker in Karachi underlines that several transgender are engaged in sex work usually because of the economic hardship due to the societal stigma. Many of these workers are unemployed or employed as low-wage workers such as janitors, which is often not enough for their daily sustenance ( McKay & Saleem Ullah, 2019). Thus, lack of opportunities in the mainstream job market and discrimination by society forces them to consider sex work as the only possible stream of earning. Unlike the suburb or rural areas, sex work is especially prevalent in urban regions of Karachi and Lahore. Simmi, another trans-sex worker, notes that an effeminate transgender can earn up to 10,000 rupees per act, vis-à-vis other activities like dance, which only gets them around 2000 to 3000 rupees (cite dawn). Simultaneously, lack of awareness about Sexually Transmittable Diseases (STDs), and lack of dedicated health infrastructure that can cater to the requirements of the transgender community, make them one of the most vulnerable groups in the HIV/AIDS epidemic in cities like Karachi (Shaqani, Dara, & Shaik, 2019).

Similarly, with the rising gentrification of public spaces in both Karachi and Lahore, transgender are often denied entry in public parks, malls, restaurants, and even public transport. The exclusive and heteronormative structure of these city have also made them vulnerable to extreme violence. During the recent years numerous instances of violence against the community have been reported in Karachi. In 2015 alone, more than 70 transgender were killed in the city. Most of the cases also remain underreported because of the societal stigma. For example, in 2017 Sharmeeli, a transwoman in Karachi was gunned down in a posh and highly securitized region of the city. No evidence of animosity was found in the case. It was as if she only lost her life because of her gender orientation. It was also underlined by the group during a protest that police do not lodge FIR against the culprit whenever such case occurs, and usually their plea is dismissed without any valid reason (tribune). Similar, cases of violence have been reported in Lahore, and their rate is only on rise.


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The author (Muhammad Ashar Khan) is a Resident Research Fellow at the Youth Center for Research (YCR), and is currently pursuing his bachelors in Social Development and Policy from Habib University, Karachi, Pakistan. The author is also an alumnus of the Study of United States Institues (SUSI) Program in Comparative Public Policy, from University of Massachusetts, Amherst.