“Are We Not Humans?” Thousands of transgenders in Kashmir are fighting for their rights and against social stigma
Each week after Friday prayers, transgenders in Kashmir hold meetings in Srinagar, the capital of north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The topic of discussion always focuses on one thing: the rights of 4000 transgenders in the state and the social stigma they are facing.
Leading the discussions and debates is 50-year-old Abdul Rashid (a.k.a. "Reshma"), a Kashmiri Muslim transgender whose music videos have created ripples on the Internet.
Reshma is the top entertainer and the most sought-after singer in Kashmiri weddings. He writes and composes his own songs. As a transgender, Reshma's popularity and success have made him a role model for the marginalized transgender community of Kashmir who look up to him for guidance and inspiration.
"My community must work hard to achieve success in life,” he says.
While the transgender community in the West has scored political victories and turned public opinion in favor of more rights, the 4.8 million in the transgender community of India are struggling to escape a social stigma.
The issue of enlisting transgenders in the military is currently being debated in the U.S. In India, steps are being taken to restore the dignity of transgender people. For example, a “transgender persons bill” is being introduced in the Indian parliament for safeguarding their rights and interests. While the draft legislation has criminalized discrimination on grounds of sex, there are some controversial provisions that transgender people are protesting. Activists say the very definition of a "transgender" in the bill is wrong. It identifies a transgender as "a person who is neither wholly male nor wholly female". Many activists say the definition in itself is ridiculous.
Other activists say that the proposed legislation goes against the very spirit of the Supreme Court order in August this year that declared freedom of sexual orientation as a fundamental right. The top court further said: “Discrimination against an individual on the basis of sexual orientation is deeply offensive to the dignity and self-worth of the individual. Equality demands that the sexual orientation of each individual in society must be protected on an even platform.”
In December 2017, the south Indian state of Andhara Pradesh approved a scheme to provide a monthly pension of 1500 Indian rupees (or 23 US dollars) to transgenders above 18 years of age. However, there are no such schemes in Kashmir, where the discrimination against transgenders is endemic.
The marginalized community has been traditionally straitjacketed as merely match-makers. But with love marriages becoming common and the concept of arranged marriages slowly fading away, their role in arranging marriages has shrunk. Social media connecting people directly is not helping either. Lack of education just adds to their woes. The community is vastly uneducated. A majority of them haven't progressed beyond primary school. Reshma says the reason for the high dropout rates among the transgender community is because they are made fun of in schools and, therefore, discontinue their education.
Reshma says this is precisely what must change.
"It is important that our community gets education, that will only help them to come out of the fringes and fight for their rights." he said.
But the discrimination does not end there. There is not a single graveyard for transgenders in Kashmir and there are limitations on how and where they can worship, as well.
40-year-old Babloo, a Kashmiri transgender, recounts the harrowing experience of discrimination when his entering a mosque last year triggered a major controversy and caused many worshippers to boycott the mosque.
“I cleaned a mosque; some people said they will not pray there anymore because I am a transgender. I felt as if I were not a human being or a Muslim.” said Babloo.
With the absence of graveyards for transgender people to use, it is a constant struggle to get a respectable burial. A majority of them are abandoned by their families which forces the transgender community to live in almost complete isolation.
"An elderly person from our community died a few years back in the old city. In the morning, people gathered and police also arrived. But nobody knows where he was buried or whether he was kept in a mortuary,” said another transgender, Shubnum.
“It is a big issue that transgenders don't have a graveyard in Kashmir. It is something that the people and the government must think about.” he said.
Even though Islam - the dominant religion in Muslim majority Kashmir - provides rights to transgenders, the people are still oppressed. The first ethnographic study of valley's transgender people, “Hijras in Kashmir - A marginalized Form of Personhood”, was conducted by Aejaz Bund, a Kashmiri activist working for the rights of transgenders.
"Mosques are mostly male-dominated spaces while the Sufi shrines are open to all. Transgenders actually find it easier to worship in shrines,” he says.
While the discrimination against transgenders is rampant, they just want to be seen as human beings in need of God's love and basic human rights. In spite of the stigma transgender people in Kashmir face, there are no reported cases of violence against them here. In contrast, 69 transgenders have been reportedly killed in the U.S. in the last three years alone.
Aejaz Bund has now approached the high court to end discrimination against the transgenders. A division bench of the court has directed the government to respond to the petition seeking protection of the rights of transgender people.
"We moved a petition in the high court and the case is on-going. The civil society, politicians and people of influence need to come forward and acknowledge that this is a society living a substandard life and they are the human beings worthy of dignity and we need to acknowledge that worth and dignity," said Bund.
Is a legal battle enough to end discrimination against a community that has no representation in the social, economic and political structure of the state and that has been living on the margins and in shadows? Perhaps not.