Shabnam Subhan Ganai, wearing white-colored Khandress and a skull cap, opened the door of her three-storey house — on the banks of river Jhelum in Srinagar’s Basant Bagh — with a welcoming smile.
Life is difficult outside the comfort of her home. She first struggled for acceptance at school, a small school in Handwara town of North Kashmir, but eventually dropped out of school after passing the tenth standard. “I was troubled by the gossip related to my sexuality, mockery behind my back and name-calling,” she said, with a frown.
Ms. Ganai had come to Srinagar in 1997 when she left her parents’ home in north Kashmir’s Sopore after she felt uncomfortable with her family. “My family wasn’t happy with my feminine features and they constantly nagged me to be a man,” she said, adding that it had disturbed her emotionally.
Ms. Ganai is a 45-year-old transwoman, a member of the marginalized transgender community in Kashmir, numbering a mere few thousand, that has been constantly ignored by successive governments and society.
Despite the Supreme Court having acknowledged–in the National Legal Services Authority vs Union of India case of 2014–transgenders as a “third gender” and validating the extension of constitutionally guaranteed civil, political, and cultural rights to them, little has changed on the ground for Kashmiri transgenders.
On 28 May 2020, a decision was taken by the Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) Administrative Council, headed by the then Lieutenant Governor Girish Chandra Murmu, to grant transgenders a monthly pension under an integrated social security scheme.
The decision would have enabled transgenders to receive monthly financial assistance of 1000 Rupees, as given to the homeless, the elderly, widows, divorcees, orphans, and disabled individuals who have a minimal or no income.
“They will be getting the monthly pension, once they get transgender and income certificates. We have already started the process. I don’t think this is going to take much time now,” said Ashraf Akhoon, Director of the Social Welfare Department.
The transgender community, however, is yet to benefit from the implementation of the decision. “The work is under process and we haven’t been given a pension yet,” said Ms. Ganai, “because it requires various documents and the help of few officers. As you know, we hardly get any help or anything easily.”
In 2017, the Social Welfare Department had presented a draft policy aimed at the welfare of the transgender community. However, the policy was objected to, by Srinagar-based activist Aijaz Bund, for being “highly-insensitive”.
“Some clauses in the policy were belittling and invalidating their existence,” he said.
A controversial clause of the policy, drawn up by the State Social Welfare Department, envisaged medical boards — consisting of, among other, administration officials as well as psychologists and psychiatrists — to determine the gender of an individual and to grant a certificate.
“Will they issue them certificates after checking their genitals? This is ridiculous,” said Mr. Bund, adding that compulsory medical examination further stigmatised the community.
Struggle for acceptance
“Successive governments and even Governor’s rule have been very callous towards the problems of the transgender community,” said Mr. Bund, who runs the Srinagar-based non-profit, Sonzal Trust, to support gender and sexual minorities in Kashmir. “Nothing really has been done so far in favor of the transgender community.”
Mr. Bund has been actively advocating for acceptance of the transgender community and fighting for their right of equality, dignity, and the government’s directions for their welfare.
In 2017, Mr. Bund filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, seeking social, economic, and political inclusion besides the rehabilitation of the community and their recognition as a marginalized and vulnerable section of the society.
There have been several interim judgements during the PIL, said Mr. Bund, but little has materialised so far. “The PIL calls on the government to consider the transgender community as a marginalized and disadvantaged section of society and thus to impose reservations on educational institutions and government employment,” said Mr. Bund.
The last hearing of PIL was in mid-September 2020. “They haven’t done anything in favor of our PIL. The approach of the court has been insensitive,” said Mr. Bund, adding that the judgements and announcements of the court were not made while hearing the PIL.
Mr. Akhoon, the director of the Social Welfare department, said that he was unaware of any of the concerns raised in the PIL in the court. “I am not sure what is in the PIL but the authorities are trying to redress the major issues faced by the community,” he said.
He added: “If some particular person has some issues, representatives of the association of transgenders can come to me and I will accompany them to the Deputy commissioner’s office and we will try to redress all the issues and the grievances.”
“Something is better than nothing”
While most transgenders struggle for acceptance from families, Mohammad Aslam, famously known as Babloo, was loved and accepted by her family all her life.
Ms. Aslam, now 50, lives in the Dalgate area of Srinagar. She also dropped out of school after the eighth standard owing to the family’s poor financial condition. As an adult, she started working as a matchmaker, and also performed at weddings to support her family.
According to the 2011 census, the total number of transgenders in Jammu and Kashmir is projected to be approximately 4137. Most of them have been traditionally working as manzimyo’ar (matchmakers) or performers at wedding ceremonies.
Being among the exceptions who have found support from their families, Ms. Aslam has never stepped back from helping other members of her community. “Most of us are living in rented accommodation and are facing many problems. If I can help them in any way, I always will,” she said.
Ms. Aslam said that the transgender community has been fighting their battles for ages. “Government has always only talked about giving us rights but hasn’t done anything for us,” she said.
After the abrogation of J-K’s semi-autonomy last year–a move that was justified by, among other reasons, stating its gender discriminatory nature- Mr. Bund sees no scope of government focusing on the transgender community.
“There will be focus and attention on various issues as a matter of priority given the situation in Jammu and Kashmir,” he said, adding that justifying the abrogation of the special status of J-K by calling it “homophobic” and saying that it will give equal rights to all the marginalized and discriminated communities in Kashmir is nothing but “pinkwashing”.
He added: “Basically, they are giving an impression that abrogation is in favor of LGBT rights but there is nothing like that.”
In June 2020, the Kashmiri Youth Movement and Pride Kashmir, an LGBTQ grouping of non-resident Kashmiri Pandits, announced a pride march in Srinagar’s Lalchowk scheduled to be held nearly a year after the abrogation. The march, however, did not take place.
“Pride march was an extension of the right-wing. All of a sudden, they declared that they are going to take out a pride march in Kashmir. Before that they never talked about it,” said Mr. Bund, adding the group intended to project Kashmiris as inherently violent and anti-LGBTQ. “These groups are strongly involved in justifying settler-colonial strategies such as the revocation of Article 370.”
Mr. Bund considers the monthly pension of 1000 rupees to the transgender community the smallest step in large welfare. “These 1000 rupees cannot take them out of oppression and marginalization but we believe, something is better than nothing.”
At her home in Srinagar, Ms. Ganai has carefully collected photos from her modelling career–that she has since quit–and those with her friends and the clients she has matched over the years.
“I have done everything in my life. The traffic used to stop when I crossed the streets in Lalchowk,” she smiled remembering the old times and how she used to wear heels, apply henna and nail paint with a stroke of her favorite brown lipstick. “We were loved.”
The smile on her face is suddenly replaced with an unease. Ms. Ganai said that she has stopped grooming herself after she adopted a son, seven years ago from a family in Tral, to get rid of her loneliness.
“I used to love grooming and wearing ladies’ suits,” said Ms. Ganai, adding that she has taken on more responsibilities and become more cautious about her decisions. “For the past few years, I have started wearing Khandress as I have a son now. I don’t want anyone to mock him or say anything hurtful to him.”
After years of struggle, Ms. Ganai has won acceptance in her family and neighborhood. “It was not the same before. My family invites me to feasts now. They love me,” said Ms. Ganai, adding that now, she is looking forward to performing the Hajj, the mandatory pilgrimage for Muslims who can afford it.
Ms. Ganai, who only had 500 rupees when she came to Srinagar, now has built her own house of five rooms. Although, she is identified as a transgender on her Adhaar card, it is just a small consolation as problems of the larger transgender community remains unaddressed. It has been Ms. Ganai’s life’s goal, for the past twenty-three years, to fight for the acceptance of her community.
Ms. Ganai believes that acceptance for the larger transgender community is growing after a movement for their rights picked pace and the consistent media coverage in the last few years.“The society has started accepting us,” she said. “Kashmir is changing for us now.”
The cover story originally appeared in our 28 September – 4 October 2020 print edition.