On November 17, the government of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, banned “Joyland,” the story of a young man in Pakistan who falls in love with a transgender woman. The film, which has received both critical acclaim and popular praise abroad, is Pakistan’s official entry for the 2023 Academy Awards. Pakistan’s federal government had earlier banned the film for containing “highly objectionable material” and for going against “morality and decency.” However, the federal government rescinded its ban and the film was scheduled for nationwide release on November 18. Less than 24 hours after this decision, the Punjab government blocked the film’s release in the province.
Since September 2021, 18 transgender people have been reported killed in Pakistan, according to Amnesty International. Discrimination and violence against transgender people is common despite provisions in Pakistani law protecting transgender people. In 2009, Pakistan’s Supreme Court called on all provincial governments to recognize the rights of transgender people, and in 2018, parliament passed a law that broadly protects trans people’s rights. The Punjab authorities’ Joyland ban comes as anti-transgender rhetoric and incitement to violence have increased in tandem with recent efforts by some politicians to amend the 2018 legislation. In September, Mushtaq Khan, a member of parliament from the right-wing Jamaat-i-Islami party, said that the 2018 law, allowing self-perceived gender choice, represented a “danger to the family and inheritance system.”
Censorship and a clampdown on artistic expression undermines the basic principles of a democratic society and violates Pakistan’s international obligations. Pakistan is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression. Article 19 provides that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds,” including in the form of art, or through any other media.” Free speech is also protected in Pakistan’s constitution.
The authorities in Punjab should recognize Pakistan’s diversity as a strength, not a weakness. They should take action against discrimination and violence against transgender people, not films.