• Hirra Azmat
  • Publish Date: Dec 23 2017 8:26PM
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  • Updated Date: Dec 23 2017 8:26PM

In 21st-century Kashmir, the transgender community continues to face  discrimination, even ostracisation. This is a national shame


Last year, Ajaz Ahmad Bund, a research scholar and LGBT activist, petitioned the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, seeking directions to the state government to ensure welfare of the transgender community. Bund asked for setting up shelters for transgenders disowned by their families, providing opportunities for their education and, above all, ensuring they are treated as equal under law.

It's no secret that transgender people have it hard in our society. They are widely discriminated against and often ostracised, including by the families. Thewsme thinking, and so I set out to meet and talk to a few members of the community to gather their experiences. Many are thus forced to seek shelter and solace with each other. Mehraj-ud-Din and Shakeel Ahmad, both in their late 30s, share a three-roomed tenement of unplastered walls and few windows, in Nawakadal, Srinagar. They both left home at an early age to escape mistreatment and unacceptance of their sexuality.

“I was always told to stay indoors,” Mehraj says of his childhood. “I never got admitted in school. Is it my fault that I was born with the wrong genitals. I had become a source of shame for my family. My siblings would often beat me up. There came a point when I couldn’t take it any longer and I left home, never to look back.” She ended up in Jammu, where she endured weeks of hardship and starvation before coming across a transgender community.

“I was baptized there,” Mehraj says. “It was a celebration. I was made to dress up like a bride and introduced to my new family members. My old familial ties got snapped the moment I took the vow.” Mehraj returned to Kashmir after xx years, and started a new life as a match-maker. Twelveyears later, she is struggling to make ends meet. “Our profession has been badly hit by the social media. Today’s generation doesn’t need a mediator, they meet on social networking sites and interact on their own,” Mehraj laments.

Shakeel is in the same profession. She keeps a small leather-bound diary to note down the names and addresses of her clients. She has been doing this for the last seven years. This year, the diary is mostly blank. “Our profession as match-makers is dying a slow death,” she rides. “I barely manage to arrange two or three marriages a year now. They fetch me Rs 6,000-10,000 each. It’s becoming difficult to make the ends meet.”

Financial insecurity has pushed Mehraj and Shakeel against the wall, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. “There are many members from our community who have already fallen prey to prostitution,” says Shakeel. “I don't blame them. The government is doing nothing to alleviate our plight. How will we survive? Where will we go?”

Daisy Jan, who is in her early 20s, lives in one of the many makeshift houses that have sprung up in Kathi Darwza, Srinagar. She left her family last year, tired of the almost daily harrasment and mistreatment. She makes a living singing and dancing at marriages, and dreams of becoming a professional singer. She pines for a partner and a family of her own, she says, but her situation is not lost on her: “We are a cursed lot,” she says. “Nobody wants to have any kind of association with us. Recently, I was walking down a road. I had covered my face with a veil. A boy started stalking me. I felt happy for a moment. When I lifted my veil, he let out a volley of expletives and ran away as if I were some monster.”

Gloom is a theme that threads the lives of most transgender people in Kashmir. Sajad Ahmad, 80, lives in a single rundown room provided by a mosque management committee in Old Srinagar. He says he has been battling starvation and isolation for over a decade. A life of toil and unhappiness has left his body frail and face gaunt, the passing years sculpting deep furrows of worry o his forehead. Old age doesn’t permit work, and his family has never been around. Sajad survives on alms from his neighbours, who often just leave food at his doorstep.

“My family shunned me years ago. I made a living tailoring. But my health is failing now and I can’t work anymore. There is no shelter home or pension scheme for our community. I am at the mercy of these people,” he says, referring to his neighbours.

Reshma is that rare transgender who is doning well, relatively. Social media has helped make her one of the most sought after faces on the marriage circuit. Reshma dropped out of school because of relentless teasing, and began apprentising with her tailor uncle, who tasked her to deliver newly stitched clothes in Lal Bazar.

“One time I was asked to deliver newly stitched clothes to a family in a posh locality of Lal Bazar during wedding. The family insisted I join the revelry and on their insistence, I started singing. To my surprise, the roomful of people listened, enraptured, and the moniker of Reshma [after the renowned Pakistani singer of that name] was immediately bestowed upon me.” Her mother was least amused by the moniker, but it proved to be a blessing in disguise for Reshma. Her singing skill came handy when she suddenly found herself the sole breadwinner of her younger brother’s wife and three young children after his untimely death. “I had never thought I would be a singer. Nor had I ever imagined it would become a means of earning a livelihood. I feared living a lonely life. But I have a family now. They love me unconditionally. I couldn’t have asked for more.”

Yet, Reshma too rues the discrimination her community endures, including by the state. Her face twitches in irritation as she dismisses the idea that the Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling recognising the third gender has brought about any substantial changes on the ground. She is not alone in being suspicious of the state. Mehraj recalls that when the ruling was passed, a friend asked her whether she had been paid anything. Nothing, she replied. The two friends were thus convinced it was just another sham perpetrated upon them by the law. She also remembers being taken to an office in Karan Nagar, where she and a few other transgenders had an animated discussion with some officials about their situation. Nothing ever came of it.

In the absence of support from the state and the society at large, the transgeders, at least in Srinagar, have sought to develop their own network of solidarity. Weekly, they gather at Dalgate, and pours their hearts out to each other. That is barely enough to cope with the daily degradations that have become their lot, though. Mehraj sums it up this: “Life has taught me to be thick-skinned but if sometimes I am walking with my niece, the passersby are quick to remark that a laanch [the vernacular vulgar term for transgenders] is walking with a girl and laugh. I feel the barb deep in my heart, and often breakdown.”