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Pakistan: Exploit Trans People, Collect More Taxes?

July 21, 2010

The New York Times reported last week on the ghastly inefficient taxation system in Pakistan, where less than two percent of the population pays income tax – least especially the wealthiest.  Pakistan has the lowest rate of tax collection in the world.

The problem is impunity, money laundering, and inefficient collection systems.  Instead of beefing up these systems and weeding out the political corruption that breeds the lack of accountability among government officials, one municipality in Karachi has brought in a special kind of tax collector – transgender women, (TGs), a marginalized group in Pakistan.

The concept behind the strategy is that transgender women are so embarrassing, so repulsive and shocking, that a well-to-do and well-bred elite would rather pay up the $250,000 owed than continue to be pestered by these pariahs.  A quirky and creative concept at best, but exploitative at heart.

The thrust of the NYT piece is the vast inequity in Pakistan among the rich and the poor, and among those who are burdened by taxes even with measly wages versus those who make enough that they are entirely above the law.  But the underlying question is of a different kind of inequity – that between those who fit into hetero-normative or acceptable roles in Pakistani society, and those who do not.

How does Pakistan’s egregious wealth inequity impact those most marginal and most vulnerable in society, such as the transgender community?  We don’t know, because, not unsurprisingly, that wasn’t part of the story.  The community was being utilized as a tool of embarrassment – a smelly sock on a stick – to say nothing of the effectiveness of this strategy.

Apparently people have started to pay up; though I’m not certain if that justifies the means or simple reinforces the skewed perceptions of trans people in society.

One can wax ‘meta’ for a moment and take the angle that by enlisting these transgender women to help rabble rouse, embarrass and cajole the upper crust the organization is enabling a revolution of sorts – new voice to the voiceless, new power to the powerless, an intrusion of the most untouchable into the guarded homes of the most elite.  But it doesn’t appear that the strategy is quite so thoughtful.

The women portrayed in the NYT video at first seem to have a great time – lolling in their loveliness and soaking up the gawking stares of passersby on the street as they pour out of vans and rickshaws into previously untouched neighborhoods.  But after knocking on the door of one wealthy elite, who hasn’t paid taxes in years and whose response is apathetic at best, they seem to grow instantaneously weary and angry.

They are indignant at the apathy, the impunity.  “You said you’d pay last year, and now you say the same thing again this year.  You expect us to believe you?”  But what other choice do they have?

Other than their shock power, their power to move via repulsion in a society where transgender identities don’t quite fit in, they don’t have any power.  It is not they who will ultimately make them pay, and somehow, seeing their elite, normative counterpart face to face, serene and pampered on the other side of a gated door, serves only to amplify the inequity, the (ironically) untouchable status of that upper class.  The women leave, no richer, no more respected, no more powerful than they were before.

The NYT should follow-up with a piece about what is being done to employ (other than as tax collectors), educate, support, and empower those in Pakistan who do not fit into gender norms.

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