“Scream as much as you want,” the man told Asma*, as two other men, all in their late 20s, held her by her arms and legs, “nobody will believe you.”
She still remembers the date — 25 August 2018. Asma was woken up by the commotion when three men entered the room where she slept, exhausted after two consecutive nights of performances at a wedding in Srinagar. Asma is a matchmaker who also performs at weddings.
That night, Asma was raped inside the dimly lit room; the three men took turns sodomizing and biting her while the marriage’s celebration continued in the house, she said. The men tore her clothes and told her that they were raping her for dressing like a woman. “They said that they would teach me how it is to be like a woman,” she said. “They told me that I deserved everything that they were doing to me.”
Asma vomited throughout the night and at dawn, she applied makeup to hide her bruises as she left for her home. A scar on her right arm remains to this day a reminder of the violence the three men inflicted on her. “He bit me as if he was hungry for many days,” she said. “It felt like he wanted to tear my flesh apart.”
The 26-year-old is part of the transgender community in Kashmir, which not only faces rampant sexual abuse by gender-conforming men but also ostracisation — pushing them into an uncomfortable spiral of silence.
Neither first nor last
What happened on 25 August was, for Asma, the culmination of years of harassment and violence against her. Struggling with her gender identity while growing up, she faced rejection at home and at school — she was forced to quit school when she was in the ninth standard, bullied for her femininity. “My classmates would touch me unnecessarily, hug me, touch my cheeks, abuse me, wink at me,” said Asma. “The worst thing happened when they pulled down my pants.”
Asma was supported by the transgender community and soon joined the matchmaking business right away — many from the community end up as matchmakers, with other professions out of bounds for them owing to their marginalisation.
After the three men raped her, Asma was in depression for more than a year but couldn’t share it with her family. “They are already ashamed of having a child who is transgender,” she said. “I cannot tell them that I have been raped.”
Since then, Asma has thought of lodging a complaint against her rapists but the thought of being humiliated has always stopped her. “People think that we change our gender for having sex [with men],” she said. “We don’t change our gender, we were born like this.”
Asma no longer enjoys singing, weddings remind her of the men who raped her. “This has happened to transgenders before me,” she said. “This will continue happening after us as well.”
Mudassir Aziz, a psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences in Srinagar, said that almost all transgenders face sexual abuse but were afraid of seeing a doctor or expressing their feelings because they are faced with rejection from society. “Even their parents reject them, why would they trust us?” asked Aziz. “The trust deficit is there and it has been normalised.”
Sexual abuse can cause various mental illnesses including depression, personality disorders, or compulsive disorders, said Aziz. “As a society, we are not ready to welcome them. How can we expect them to be fine?” he said. “If we cannot teach ourselves even now, they will keep suffering.”
Growing up, Altaf* was constantly reprimanded for talking or dressing like women. “They felt ashamed of me,” he said. Consequently, the 22-year-old transgender felt “ashamed” of speaking out against being sexually abused, since the age of eight, by a cousin, who was ten-years-older to him.
The cousin also told other men in the locality about Altaf’s identity as a transgender, leading to more men attempting to abuse him. “I stopped going out completely. They did not let me walk on the streets,” he said. Altaf, however, still lives with his family.
The abuse continued for six years, till he was 14. “For a very long time, I could not understand what he was doing with me…He would touch my genital area and do other terrible things with me,” said Altaf. “He tried to rape me around three times but I acted strong. He was forced to stop eventually.”
By the time Altaf turned eighteen, he said, he had developed “sexual dependency” and had multiple sexual partners but didn’t know that diseases could be transmitted sexually — even today, he is reserved on the subject, only saying that he faced “health issues.”
The hardships had started to take a toll on Altaf’s mental health. He tried to run away from his home but was brought back by his relatives, twice. “If they had not brought me back, I don’t know where I would have been today,” he said. “I had become extremely weak after this. My immune system was weakening. I was infected.”
Aijaz Ahmad Bund, Srinagar-based LGBTQ activist and founder of the Sonzal Welfare Trust, said that sexual abuse is the most common form of violence faced by transgender community. “We even receive cases who have faced multiple episodes of sexual violence,” said Bund.
“We have people who have been gang-raped, some were even forced into oral sex,” he said, adding that the problem is that “we are yet to admit the fact that anyone can be raped.”
On 12 October 2020, the Supreme Court issued notice to the Centre on a petition by advocate Reepak Kansal seeking changes in the criminal law to protect transgender people from sexual violence. The petition cited the absence of any provision in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that deals with sexual assault by any male, female or transgender on a transgender. It said that Section 354 of the IPC — punishment for sexual assault against women — didn’t extend to transgenders.
“These victims of sexual violence quite often suffer silently because of Rape Trauma Symptom Disorder (RTSD),” said Bund. “The suicidal ideation, low self-esteem, self-blaming, panic attacks, depression, problems in forming relationships, etc are quite common in such scenarios.”
To address their concerns, the transgender community needed to approach the court, said Moksha Kazmi, a private lawyer working in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court. “If at least one or two of them come to the court,” said Kazmi, “they will get the acceptance.”
*Names changed on request