ISLAMABAD Pakistan's Supreme Court ordered authorities on Wednesday to allow transvestites and eunuchs to identify themselves as a distinct gender as part of a move to ensure their rights, a lawyer said.
Known by the term "hijra" in conservative Muslim Pakistan, transvestites, eunuchs and hermaphrodites are generally shunned by society.
They often live together in slum communities and survive by begging and dancing at carnivals and weddings. Some are also involved in prostitution.
Iftikhar Chaudhry, chief justice of Pakistan, ordered the government to give national identity cards to members of the community showing their distinct gender and to take steps to ensure that they were not harassed.
"The government's registration authority has been directed to include a separate column in national identity cards showing them as hijras," Mohammad Aslam Khaki, a lawyer for hijras told Reuters.
"By doing so, they think they will get a distinct identity and it will help them get their rights."
A hijra association welcomed Chaudhry's order, saying it would ease their suffering.
"It's the first time in the 62-year history of Pakistan that such steps are being taken for our welfare," the association's president, who goes by the name Almas Bobby, told Reuters.
"It's a major step toward giving us respect and identity in society. We are slowly getting respect in society. Now people recognize that we are also human beings."
Khaki said the court also ordered the government to evolve a mechanism to ensure that hijras are not harassed and also take steps to ensure their inheritance rights.
Hijras are often denied places in schools or admittance to hospitals and landlords often refuse to rent or sell property to them. Their families often deny them their fair share of inherited property.
Hijras are both feared and pitied in Pakistan. They are feared for their supposed ability to put curses on people while they are pitied as they are widely viewed as the outcast children of Allah.
The number of hijras in Pakistan is not known but community leaders estimate there are about 300,000 of them.
In June, the Supreme Court ordered the government to set up a commission to conduct a census of hijras.
(Editing by Robert Birsel and Sugita Katyal)