The stance of the majority of South Asian countries, where trans persons have a cultural or religious history, indicates a new phase in the fight for human rights and securing dignity, respect and equal opportunity for minority communities.
Monica Shahi becomes the first trans woman in Nepal to be issued a passport from the central authority under the category ‘O’.
The Himalayan country joins its immediate neighbour India – as well as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Germany, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand – in officially recognizing transgender citizens. Shah’s passport bears the identification ‘O’, much like the third category ‘E’ on Indian passport forms. What significance does this recognition hold? Being granted legal status opens up many doors to an entire community – the doors to a sound education, the doors to economic opportunities, to health care, to support systems, and to property – the basic requirements to leading a fulfilling life.
As far back as 2007, the Supreme Court of Nepal ruled against discrimination of sexual minorities and in 2011, the national census also took account of trans people. The ruling propelled a shift in attitudes towards transgenders in the country, who were subject to humiliation, violence and frequent arrests by the police. The introduction of the ‘O’ category is likewise important. Without passports bearing their appropriate gender identity, trans persons must often undergo invasive and prohibiting security procedures, simply because anyone outside the gender binary is viewed with suspicion.
However, the categories ‘O’ for ‘Other’, and ‘E’ for ‘Eunuch’ that appear on the passport forms in Nepal and India respectively are, to say the least, problematic. Such terminology seems insistent on the dividing line between the normalcy of ‘M’ or ‘F’ on one side, and the alienness of trans people on the other side.
Even so, the step is a progressive one and ought to be welcome here, as well as in countries that do not currently offer legal status to trans folks. Passports then will become not just for crossing physical borders, but those barriers of the mind which keep us from embracing the spectrum of humanity.