Lilith Raza is a queer trans activist from Pakistan who has lived in Germany since 2012. She promotes the rights of LGBTIQ+ refugees, works for the LSVD’s “Queer Refugees Deutschland” project (Gay and Lesbian Foundation in Germany), and is active in queer networks throughout Europe.
The talk with Lilith Raza begins with a deep plunge, without delay or deviation, as if we were diving straight down. Raza talks about something that is often taboo: her most traumatic experience, which occurred a few years before she left Pakistan. “Two years ago I wouldn’t have been able to talk about it, I wasn’t ready yet,” she says. After leaving the country and studying in Cologne, she met a man who reawakened a painful physical experience in her, one so intense she collapsed. The moment her body rebelled came entirely without warning.
“My body suddenly recalled the rape in Pakistan,” she says in a strong and confident voice. The painful experience had occurred many years before, but came rushing back that evening. In retrospect, the physical sensations that overcame her again were the first step toward healing and confronting what she had repressed. The process takes time. “For all those years I had felt guilty. Now I know there was absolutely nothing I could have done as a child.” Raza is gentle with herself.
She was raped in her home country of Pakistan, and then endured a lengthy period of sexual abuse. Despite a paralyzing sense of guilt, she rises up, goes to university in Lahore, and finds kindred spirits during her studies. She establishes a safe space, although it is actually not really safe, nor does it guarantee any sort of freedom. The hope for solace in religion is also an attempt to find stable ground. Raza ultimately becomes an atheist. In 2011 Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, is murdered by a radical Islamist. His positions had included calling for the release of Asia Bibi, a Christian imprisoned for “blasphemy”. Raza immediately knows there is no safety or future for her in Pakistan. She cannot count on Pakistani society as she herself struggles to come to terms with discrimination, secrecy, violence against trans people, and her own identity – and fears for her life. She is also in danger of ending her life herself. She suddenly realizes that “no one would even know why I was murdered, or killed myself.”
Coming out and becoming an activist
At the age of 16 Raza senses that the boy who likes climbing trees and playing with other children and who loves his mother is living in a body that does not correspond to her gender. Another eight years go by before she encounters terms like transgender, trans person, and trans woman – and finds a language for her identity. “You have to be able to talk about yourself in your native tongue, you need a form of expression for your feelings that is not a language of colonialism.”
Raza, now a queer activist living in Cologne, runs an online programme in Panjabi on queer-feminist issues at least once a month. She also speaks Urdu, Hindi, English and German. “It’s important to have your own language for talking about your experiences and saying who you are, how you feel, how you defend and protect yourself – all of that,” she says.
Raza was already making use of safe spaces back in Pakistan to build networks. Together with others she continues to support, advise and strengthen queer people in their relations with their families. Together they watch queer films (which are forbidden in Pakistan) and create a welcoming atmosphere in contradistinction to societal norms. Activism doesn’t always have to go public right away, it can also be pursued in semi-private spaces.
Raza chose her first name when she came out. She liked the Hebrew-Babylonian name because Lilith, the first wife of Adam, “resisted Adam’s dominance,” she says. “Adam’s first wife was also the first feminist.” Raza has engaged in feminist and queer/trans activism since 2017 in her work for the LSVD’s “Queer Refugees Deutschland” project, which advises LGBTI+ refugees and connects and supports LGBTI+ refugee activists. Raza is also a board member for Queer Netzwerk NRW, an advisory board member for New Women Connectors and Säkularer Flüchtlingshilfe e.V., and a founding member of the Queer European Asylum Network (QUEAN).
Allies are important to her. She herself would not be where she is without them. Alliances are especially helpful for advancing trans interests and rights. Raza began working with LSVD after studying environmental science. Along the way she has been influenced by many queer and non-queer individuals, by many refugees who have come to Germany since 2015, by the New Year’s Eve events in Cologne, and by the break in her silence about the rape.
Progress in Pakistan?
Since Raza left Pakistan, there has been a small revolution in the country’s laws. In 2018 it passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, allowing people to be recognized with their self-perceived gender independently of that assigned at birth. The law also explicitly gives trans people the right to vote and run for office, and the rights to assembly, education, inheritance, work, healthcare and property ownership. But when Raza wants to change her passport at the Pakistani embassy in Germany in 2018, she runs up against the hard discrepancy between law and reality. “Surgical gender reassignment, a psychological evaluation, and publication of the old and new names are prerequisites for changing your passport,” she reports. The Pakistani embassy in Germany follows the letter of the law. Raza remains true to herself, and refuses to accept any demeaning files. She gives up her Pakistani passport.
Before colonization by the British empire, trans people in what is now Pakistan were not discriminated against per se. The restrictive British laws were what made all non-heterosexual people and relations illegal, and thereby also exotic. Belittled as dancers or sex workers and robbed of their dignity, trans women and men in Raza’s homeland bear the brunt of this legacy. The gap between laws and lived reality can be seen simply in the discrepancy between official accounts of around 15,000 khawaja siras (a term for trans and intersex persons) in Pakistan and estimates from Human Rights Watch of more than half a million trans people. For some time now Raza has been researching precolonial and colonial “transgender” history, which is largely a blind spot in the history of her country. She sees the Transgender Act as a belated act of decolonization, which now needs to enter people’s everyday lives and attitudes instead of languishing on paper. That requires energy, which the individuals affected cannot always muster. Raza, too, would like more of these moments of power.
Achievements and desires
On starting her studies in Cologne after arriving in Germany in 2012, Raza stops the activism that had driven her in Lahore. Then, in the summer of 2015 when many refugees come to Germany, her courage and activism reignite. Today she finds it especially valuable to lead workshops for employees of public agencies and the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees to raise awareness for the situations and concerns of trans and queer refugees. She cannot stand lies, and loves the openness with which she herself also speaks of her experiences. The power of persuasion is part of what makes her successful – “it helps me make a difference!” she exclaims. That in turn is like a gift, and the opposite of invisibility and disdain.
As the first source of advice for queer refugees, she is confronted with their invariably painful histories. This is a burden that cannot be quantified in the number of hours spent at work. Many refugees divulge their traumatic experiences of vigilantism, beatings and even torture to her. “Female individuals are affected the most when they come out as queer. Many are killed for reasons of honour, others are married off to men to preserve the honour of their families,” she says. The patriarchy is steeped in transphobia and violence against women, which makes intersectionality the logical approach for Raza’s political activism. The first thing she does for queer refugees and asylum seekers is to gather material needed for the long bureaucratic road in Germany. Sharing knowledge means gradually wresting back the power that the restrictive asylum system and its accomplices wield over individual fates. “All refugees are entitled to a chance to develop their potential,” she says. Raza sees her own future possibly in Australia, as an environmental scientist studying the intersection of migration and climate change in the Pacific.
As for her family situation, she notes that “my sister now says she has a sister. My mother is sometimes reluctant to mention two daughters or call me Lilith when neighbours might hear her on the phone.” Does that sadden her? “I just tell her to tell the neighbours, yes, two daughters, and the one in Cologne has four children.” She laughs mischievously. “You know, I’m very, very happy that she accepts me as her child.” When Raza, who was suffering from loneliness, met her mother and sister in Pakistan with the firm intention of telling them about her gender reassignment, she was worried they might reject her. Her life was at a tipping point. The uncertainty of who one is when the bond with one’s mother threatens to break, juxtaposed with the inner certainty of who one is, is a very fine emotional line to walk.
Raza prefers to dwell on the fulfilling moments that recognize her person in both her public and private lives. “When I was asked to be “Maasi” (maternal aunt) for a beautiful child, I felt respected and seen for who I am – Lilith.” When she talks about her two godchildren, her voice breaks. “And I’d like to become a mother,” she says. Her voice breaks again. This deeply rooted wish is her most cherished personal vision for the future.
Raza has come a long way in order to counsel others and help them share her sense of optimism. She has left the land of her birth. She misses her family. But as a trans woman, activist and networker, she has become someone who exudes confidence – or rather, she has made herself into this person.
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