In Kashmir clampdown, trans women face new challenges

Trans women
Shabnam Subhan showcasing her belongings that she uses in her performances. Photograph by Bhat Burhan for The Kashmir Walla

The summer passed and winter is at the door. The wedding season in Kashmir is over, and about 100 days of the partial shutdown have gone by in Kashmir Valley; Shabnam Subhan, a 44-year-old trans woman has locked her belongings – a red frock, rings, a makeup kit, and a pair of ghungroos inside a cupboard in her room.

A resident of Basant Bagh area of Lal Chowk, Srinagar, Ms. Subhan hasn’t been much out of her home since 5 August – when the central government revoked the constitutional special status of Jammu and Kashmir (J-K), and imposed a lockdown in the Valley; barring civilian movement and communication lines.

“The wedding venue was just a kilometer from my house,” said Ms. Subhan. “I thought that at least I could attend this wedding, but [government] forces had set up a checkpoint right outside my house – they wouldn’t allow anyone to pass.”

The clampdown by the government affected all sects of life – irrespective of nature. Ms. Subhan, who has been making her living by match-making and performing at weddings for the past 24-years, is sitting idle at home – counting the loss of a dry season.

For social status and living

Ms. Subhan never said that she had a cake-walk life. From childhood, she loved being around girls, and gradually, opted for their outfits to suit her preference as well. Coming from a farmer’s family in Sopore, north Kashmir, she was the youngest among 5 siblings – two brothers, two sisters.

After completing 10th grade in 1991, at the age of 16, Ms. Subhan had to run from her home – after her parents “strictly objected to her outfit” – to Srinagar “for the survival of her identity” with merely a thousand rupees by her side.

In the early years, she didn’t lend an ear to people’s thought of her flamboyant clothes or make-up in public. “Traffic would come to a halt when I used to cross a road in Lal Chowk,” she said. “But, over time, when I got a call from relatives and family, I stopped expressing my gender in public.”

In society, Kashmir is yet to uphold the LGBTQIA++ community with equal rights and freedom of expressing gender as well as sexual orientation. The societal abandonment has – over the years – limited the occupational options for trans women, leaving most of them thrive on the wedding season.

In search to attain social status and means of economic stability, Ms. Subhan joined other trans women in match-making and entertainers at weddings.

Ms. Subhan started off this wedding season with a list of the sixty-eight clients – “I lost them all.”

Some of her clients called off the wedding ceremonies, while a few others opted for modest – courtesy, the clampdown. Due to the strict restrictions and communication blackout in place in the initial weeks of the clampdown, Ms. Subhan and other members of the community weren’t able to establish any contact with their clients.

“We couldn’t even ask them (clients) for money because everyone in Kashmir is suffering,” said Ms. Shuban, looking out of the window of her house.

The beginning of every summer marks a new phase of hope of trans women in Kashmir, who aim to make the most of it. “But, the game that government played with Kashmir, instantly turned things destructive for all of us,” she said.

Every wedding season, at an average, Ms. Subhan would earn about 60-70 thousand in six months and would rely on it for the rest of the year. This season, she hasn’t earned even 10 per cent of it.

As per 2011 census, there are a total number of 4,137 transgender in J-K; many are still believed to be reluctant in expressing their sexuality.

In the absence of family support, the community has to count on each other. “A few days before 5 August, one of my friends, had her hand fractured,” she said. “I and another colleague had to get her treated from a hospital. This is our status and the pattern of life we have been living here.”

A toll on mental health

Though, the crisis not only has an economic aspect, but psychological as well. Manzoor Ahmad Shah, who prefers to be called Tooete, has been struggling to survive – “not only economically but mentally as well.”

The 35-year-old trans woman, who lives in a rented room in Gaasi neighborhood of downtown Srinagar, is suffering from anxiety, triggered by the clampdown and uncertain means of income.

“The walls of my room were haunting me the most in these past weeks,” said Ms. Subhan.

The clampdown and no scope for business made her sit at home. “The walls of my room were haunting me the most in these past weeks,” she said.

Dr. Aijaz Ahmad Bund, an assistant professor at Srinagar’s Amar Singh College who has been working for the rights of Kashmir’s LGBTQIA++ community for the past eight years said that the community members like Ms. Shaban and Toote are prone to mental illness.

Dr. Bund, in collaboration with an NGO, Sonzal Welfare Trust, used to organize weekly, or fortnightly, workshop or support sessions for the community. Though, that hasn’t been the case since 5 August.

Due to alienation within the society, as per Dr. Bund, the community depended on these sessions and social media to seek support and socialize. “I’m not in touch with most of them [since 5 August],” said Dr. Bund.

“We have been living a lonely life,” said Tooete. “But, in the wedding season, we would meet people, share jokes and a few rounds of laughs – that made us feel lucky.”

“Me fasoo yaar bobai”

The J-K Reorganisation Act 2019 extends Indian Penal Code (IPC) to the Union Territory (UT) of J-K. It would also stretch the Section 377 – which after an amendment in 2018 decriminalizes homosexual intercourse – to the UT of J-K.

However, the survival problems at the first hand leave a little or no space for the community to cherish the development.

As of now, the community cares about the upcoming winter. Now, Ms. Subhan and Tooete, like many other trans women associated with this business, sit idle at home with no money, or savings left for winter.

“What will we do in winters?” said Ms. Subhan. “We have only Almighty with us now.”

Though, in the past weeks of the clampdown, when she was not worrying about her sustainability, finding herself caged in her home – with nowhere to go – sitting on a window, overseeing the passing by river Jehlum, she hummed, logei logei curfew-ass naar, mei faseov yaar bobai, yete nai rooed kanhti kaar baar; mei faseov yaar bobai. Bi gayeas Lal Chowk andarr,heartass mei vhech thar thar; dukaan daaren tati chu burrhaal, mei faseov yaar bobai.” 

This story originally appeared in the 11 – 17 November 2019 print edition of The Kashmir Walla.

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