Kashmir’s trans community was abused and stigmatised. Now, they are battered.

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In the last three years, Khushi Meer has cried herself to sleep several times. “I have only one complaint from Allah,” she said. “Why didn’t he create me as a male or female…why a transgender?”

In the early years of her life, Khushi discovered she was “different”. Assigned the male gender at birth, she began dressing in women’s clothes and often wore makeup in her childhood. “I then knew I was the third gender,” she said.

Khushi was initiated into the transgender community ten years ago when she was still known by her birth name, Jaiz Wani. “They say I brought happiness into their lives,” she said, hence the name Khushi, happiness. She was also, unlike many other trans persons, not abandoned by her family. 

But her name resonates little with her life. “If I were a female or a male, life would have been easier,” she said. “I would have many options to earn a livelihood.” The last few years have been turbulent for the transgender community, furthering their marginalisation.

Her community has been economically battered by the lockdowns since August 2019, when New Delhi clamped down in the region and Covid-19 lockdowns were imposed for peak business months in the subsequent years. The transgender community has relied on dancing and singing at wedding ceremonies and matchmaking for livelihood. 

The Meer

On one morning, Khushi received a call from her friend, also a transwoman. Her friend had nothing to eat and she had reached out to Khushi, asking for money. “I was in a bad condition myself,” she said. “There was no way I could have helped.”

After consoling her friend and disconnecting the call, Khushi called another friend who has volunteered for nonprofits before and provided her with two food kits. “He then said that we should run a food drive for the community,” said Khushi, adding that they have reached more than a hundred members of the transgender community so far.

While she has brought hope for many in her community, Khushi herself awaited the kit to feed her family of five, including two siblings. “My family has been dependent on my income,” she said. “But I am helpless and out of work.”

A year after lockdown, Khushi and her family ran out of stock while their savings had dried up. The family spent a night empty stomach, and the next day, Khushi bought a bag of flour on credit. “We only had tea and a roti thrice a day – that’s it,” she said, referring to the hardest 15 days of her life. 

When the flour bag was empty, Khushi “got lucky” to find a job as a construction labourer for another 15 days. “My neighbors were constructing a house, that’s how I got the job,” she said.

After earning 700 a day and returning home, Khushi’s hands would be bruised and the skin would be peeled off from her shoulders. Her mother would cry looking at Khushi’s condition. “What could I have done?” she asks. 

Khushi has been mostly unemployed since August 2019. “We would do matchmaking but people do love marriages and other genders are involved in this work too now,” she said. “…and weddings are short. So people don’t need us anymore.”

Since the first lockdown during August 2019, Kashmir’s economy has witnessed major crises while every sector was badly hit. The already marginalised community with only a few sources of earning livelihood has found themselves on their knees.

Aijaz Ahmad Bund, Srinagar-based gender rights activist and founder of the Sonzal Welfare Trust, said that it has been three years since the transgender community in the valley has lost their jobs completely. 

The pandemic has limited the guest list at weddings to 25 people, restricting the grand celebrations by not hiring transgenders for musical performances. “The job was long gone. People prefer DJs now,” said Bund, in hindsight. “They [transgenders] even lost the job of matchmaking as people started opting for love marriages.”

He said that the people of Kashmir are not ready to accept transgenders in other professions and that “they are not empowered enough to break their status quo”. “Some started a job as a salesman but couldn’t continue,” said Bund. “They were abused there.”

The source of livelihood for the community was already shrunken and “now the situation has worsened”. Some of them have even forgotten how their voice sounded or how it felt to dance to the tune of the tumbakhne’ar, a traditional percussion instrument. 

A shot at different profession

Considering her limited choices, a decade ago, little Khushi had started learning make-up from her cousin. She had become an artist within a couple of years. “Transgenders don’t have a childhood,” she said.  

At 14, she would earn by grooming the bride on their wedding day. “I would be busy with booking for the entire month before the 2019 lockdown,” he said.

About three years later, Khushi has forgotten how to hold a brush. She tries applying it on herself to stay connected with the art. 

Looking into a broken small mirror hanging on the wall of her rented room in the Noorbagh area of the Srinagar district, Khushi was applying kohl to her eyes. On one of the shelves of her one-room house lay two huge suitcases of make-up. “Many products must have expired by now,” she said. “I haven’t opened them since my last booking in August 2019.”

According to a 2018 study by research scholar Yasir Ashraf, titled Transgender Community in Jammu & Kashmir, A Sociological Study of Kashmir Province, “as per census 2011 of India the number of transgender in Jammu & Kashmir is 4,137 in which 487 are in the age group of (0-6) years of age, whereas 207 are SC & 385 are belonging to ST category. The literacy rate of transgender in Jammu & Kashmir is 49.20 percent”.

Khushi is among the few trans persons who have braved bullying to make it through school. She recently passed her twelfth standard in the non-medical stream. She is now applying for a Bachelor’s degree in science. “I always wanted to study and I will continue studying,” she said.

Over two kilometers away, Shabnam, whose birth name was Subhan Ganai, was wearing shalwar kameez and a skull cap 0n the banks of river Jhelum in Srinagar’s Basant Bagh. She wasn’t lucky enough to continue her studies after passing the tenth standard. 

Transgender, Shabnam
Shabnam, a transwoman, at her residence in downtown Srinagar. Photograph by Umer Asif.

Like most trans persons in Kashmir, 46-year-old Shabnam’s livelihood was performing at weddings and matchmaking. “I never tried to change my profession,” she said. “Although, there should have been a space for us in government departments…there isn’t.”

Shabnam was even ready to do the job of sweeper at government offices if she had the chance. “Government never does anything for us,” she said. “If they had done anything, we wouldn’t have been in the state that we are in currently.”

Initially, she said the community had lost work by 50 percent initially and now we have lost it all. Over the years, Shabnam has become one of the few representatives of transgenders who narrate the stories of their community. “Nobody else talks. They are scared of coming into the spotlight,” she said.

“We at least manage but I am not sure about those transgenders who live on rent,” said Shabnam. “How do they live?”

Khushi, the young transwoman, has been told many times by her landlord to vacate her room. “I don’t have money to pay my rent,” she said. “I am under a debt of 65,000 and still finding it hard to feed my family.”

Khushi has a habit of journaling but she keeps them hidden. “I want people to see it after my death,” she said, “to know what it is to live a life of a transgender.”

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