Pakistan's first transgender model Kami Sid on being proud of her identity and dealing with the threats that come with it
When making this call to Karachi, we cannot help but recall that it's been exactly a year since the cold-blooded murder of 23-year-old Alisha, a transgender activist, who was shot seven times in northern Pakistan's Pakhtunkhwa province. Even as the brutal killing made headlines globally, the attacks on the transgender community continued. So, during the end of last year, when 26-year-old Kami Sid flooded social media timelines, posing nonchalantly in a heavily-embroidered sari - the world was forced to take notice. Not because Sid is strikingly gorgeous, but because in the tumultuous year for transgenders in Pakistan, one person had emerged as a baton of hope, becoming the first transgender model to have come out of the country.
Sid, who turns 27 today, hasn't forgotten what happened to Alisha, even though she didn't know her personally. If anything, she feels grateful to be alive. "It's not easy to survive here," says the model in a telephonic interview. "But, Karachi is my home, and there's no way I am leaving this city, darling," she explains in a husky drawl.
Until five years ago, Sid had a male identity - a name that she now refuses to reveal. "Call me Kami," she insists. "I am proud of my name. I am proud to be a transgender." Growing up in a large, middle-class family, where she was the youngest among seven siblings, she remembers being mocked and jeered at, for being effeminate. "My siblings and teachers would constantly ask me to behave like a boy," she recalls. "The problem in our community is that if a man doesn't behave like a man, he cannot be anything else," says Sid. As a child,that spurious identity left her on the fringes of everything that was considered socially acceptable. "But, I was strong, confident and my mother was very supportive, so, I didn't let any of this affect me," says Sid, who has a degree in business studies. In her late teens, Sid recognised her sexual orientation. "It was easy to assume I was gay. But, sex is between your legs. Gender is what's in your head," she says.
It was only at the age of 22, when she joined an NGO that she fully came to understand where she best belonged. Ever since, she has been at the forefront of transgender activism, working closely with NGOs, as well as the government, to provide education, health, protection rights and job opportunities for her community.
She is currently, also actively involved in drafting the protection of rights bill for transgenders, which she hopes will be eventually presented before the government. "What happened with Alisha was wrong. Many so-called NGOs did nothing but trumpet about it on Facebook. That's not called fighting for rights," argues the activist.
In 2012, Pakistan's Supreme Court declared equal rights for transgender citizens - almost two years before India recognised the community as "third gender". In January this year, the country announced that it would count transgender people in its national census for the first time. "But, there's so much work to be done. We are still treated as minority, when we are not. We are human beings first," she argues. Any piecemeal offering by the government only implies sympathy. "And, we don't need that."
When Sid started modelling last November, another new avenue opened up for her. "When I was approached for the shoot, I remember being hesitant. In fact, even when the shoot was on, I was restless, and constantly asked them to get done with it," she says. Little did she realise, she would become a viral sensation. "Nothing has changed since, except that people recognise and smile at me, when I go shopping. Some even compliment my beauty. My main focus, however, is rights for my people," she adds. If there's one thing that changed for her after her modelling career took off, it was the unexpected outburst of her extended family. "Except for my mother, my brothers and sisters weren't too happy about me coming out and talking about my sexuality," she says.
Then, there are also the threats, which only increased after she began modelling. That hasn't stopped Sid from sharing her contact details on social media. "My mum fears for my life. She keeps telling me 'beta, why don't you live in some other country? You and your partner will be happy there.' But, I'm unstoppable and fearless."