On a frosty February morning in Kashmir — a disputed region between India and Pakistan, tucked into the Himalayas — a group of trans people tiptoe on the snow-covered streets. Wary of societal and seasonal wrath, they step inside a wood and tin shack in an alley of the capital Srinagar.
Inside, 65-year-old Bashir Ahmad and 70-year-old Ghulam Qadir are preparing for the weekly get-together of some of their community members. In the poorly-lit room, Ahmad and Qadir exude influence. As mentors, they’re gracing a mattress, a symbolic top slot, while visitors are occupying the spaces around it.
These elderly trans men are shown reverence, as they prepare young homeless trans men and women to face a world full of hate and hostility. The mood inside the room is filled with veneration for these no-nonsense mentors, who sit puffing on a hookah.
Mehak, a trans woman, begins the weekly meeting by explaining how she and other trans community members have issued a proposal to the government asking for homeless shelters. These establishments would cater specifically to elderly, specially-abled and needy trans people, who aren’t able to take care of themselves.
“There are hassles in our path, but we will fight until we achieve our goal,” said Mehak, who heads a trans group in Srinagar. “It’s my resolve to sustain our fight to avail and protect our civil and economic rights.”
Dragging on their hookah, the mentors give Mehak a patient hearing, as she talks about the need to strive for larger societal acceptance. “We need to excel in education for creating our own space in society,” she said.
This trans community in Kashmir gathers regularly, away from society’s gaze, to discuss and support one another, while also ensuring capacity building through workshops with legal experts — all with a particular focus on trans youth. At the same time, they are also fighting for a specific quota percentage in jobs, government welfare programs and other sectors.
These closed-door conferences work as a sort of “informal parliament” for the trans community of Kashmir, as they face down a multitude of problems in the conflict zone. No longer comfortable playing the “victim card” — as senior members of the community have been accused of doing, simply to survive — these young trans people believe in fighting for their own rights.
Keeping up with changing times
For the 2,500-strong trans community of Kashmir, illiteracy remains a major challenge. Over 90 percent of this community is illiterate, unorganized and lacking access to even basic government policies and employment programs. “Much of these problems arise from trans people not being considered equal and often being shamed,” said Enas Shafi Khan, a gender scholar and an equal rights activist. “Some of them are confined to homes with regressive conditions, and many families want them to leave the house, which pushes them to live with other trans members in rented accommodations.”
Moreover, only a few have ration cards, which they can use to obtain staple foods — such as rice — at a minimal price from government stores. Bashir Ahmad, one of the hosts of the transgender meeting in Srinagar, says that his guru, or mentor, taught him two of the main accepted vocations for trans people in Kashmir: matchmaking for marriages and singing for celebratory functions.
According to academics and historians, these gender-based roles were assigned to trans people by the Mughal rulers, who once controlled major parts of the Indian sub-continent. They enjoyed a reputable and influential position in the court and were trusted with political advice and sending marriage proposals. After the Mughal rule ended, trans people continued performing these roles, more as a livelihood.
In recent years, however, matchmaking has been on the decline. According to Bashir, “Around 70 percent of people are finding their partners themselves, through matchmaking apps. Some marriage bureaus have also started working here.”
To Bashir, this is a sign that the trans community needs to stop beating a dead horse and break with their traditional roles. “The old avenues of earning are changing, we must identify new ways. And yes, education is the key for this,” he said.
Despite the ongoing institutional discrimination from both families and government, the community is fighting and managing to form loose networks amid the crises to help each other and create a sustainable support system. For example, Mehak networked with a few NGOs during the pandemic and provided food items and medicine to her community members. She also managed for members of the trans community to get vaccinated in a trans person’s house.
“Our community members were scared of harassment in a normal vaccination center,” she said. “But still only a few among us managed to get vaccinated, as the NGO-led drive lasted for a single day.”
Families beyond bloodlines
A few years back, Mehak was adopted as a daughter by one of her community’s mentors. This is how she was exposed to the larger trans community in Kashmir.
In an effort to feel like a family and help each other during trying times, these trans people adopt one another and give the new relationship a name of their choice.
A mentor or guru adopts a young trans member as a son or daughter, and some trans members can also become a sister or brother of one another.
The adoption ceremony is an exciting event, with community members attending as guests witnessing the formation of a family with no blood relations. They are joined simply because of care, love and mutual respect. These new relations help them to survive in a place where biological relations and the homes of most trans people have turned hostile.
“The old generation of our community were majorly illiterate, shy and that was the reason why they were exploited and harassed from every quarter,” Mehak said. “But now, times have changed. We need to get on our own feet. We need to pressure the government and civil society to come up with a policy and welfare schemes for us.”
Every month, Mehak visits the government offices — especially the social welfare department — to raise the concerns of the trans community, many of whom are not in a position to complete the documentation and other formalities that would enable them to receive access to benefit programs.
“Sometimes,” Mehak said, “the officials keep us waiting without giving an appointment, and sometimes they drive us out saying there is no policy like that.” But these curt denials are hardly stopping the trans activism that gained momentum in 2018, when — for the first time in history — the government announced welfare measures for transgender persons, including monthly relief of $13.32, free medical and life insurance, and free sex-reassignment surgeries for those who wanted them.
However, each of these policies came under sharp criticism for making eligibility dependent on transgender people receiving medical board certification. Trans activists termed the provision “inhuman” and forced the government to make a retraction. It wasn’t until three years later, during the pandemic, when Kashmir’s administration finally implemented the pension scheme for the trans community.
“The whole welfare measure is still a rigorous and cumbersome process,” Mehak said. “For example, to get an income certificate from a concerned revenue officer, we need to furnish a parental address, which most of us have already left many years ago. So far, only 30 trans persons have availed the pension benefits of $13.32 per month, while the rest are still struggling for means in the society, which has no provisions for trans people.”
However, according to Social Welfare Department Director Bashir Ahmad Dar, the government is trying to cover all trans people. “They can easily get their transgender cards from concerned departments without any medical certificate,” he noted. “I am also taking up the matter of ration cards with the consumer affairs department as soon as possible.”
Still, the issues the community continues to fight for are bigger than relief and ration. “It’s about asserting our identity,” said Khushi Meer, a 19-year-old trans activist. “Since we live in a Muslim majority region, the society is conservative and does not like trans people going for sex-reassignment surgeries. That’s why we prefer to do sex reassignment surgeries outside the region.”
According to Dr. Samia Rashid of Principal Government Medical College in Srinagar, another reason they go elsewhere is because Kashmir’s government hospitals don’t have facilities for sex reassignment and hormone replacement therapy.
The new generation of trans people want to live their lives according to their own terms, which is why many will go where they need to go for procedures. “I like to wear girl outfits,” Khushi said. “I do look quite attractive, and I am sure once the surgery is done, I will be a complete woman.”
Fledgling scholarship, career options and activism
Over the last few years, despite several societal and institutional gaps, Enus has observed a major positive shift within the trans community.
“The members were reluctant to open up and talk initially,” Enus said. “But now, they are getting positive responses and are being comparatively official. Social spaces have started opening for them. The young trans people are more empowered to tell their own stories.”
Back in 2017, Enus and two other activists filed a petition in the regional court, demanding Kashmir be forced to implement a landmark 2014 judgment by India’s supreme court, regarding the rights of trangender people. The ruling had declared transgender people the “third gender,” while also affirming their fundamental rights as equal under India’s Constitution, giving them the right to self-identify as male, female or third gender. It also directed the central and state governments to make provisions for legal recognition of third gender in all documents, recognize third gender persons as a disadvantaged class of citizens entitled to reservations in educational institutions and public employment, and to take steps to frame social welfare programs for the community.
A year after Enus filed the petition, Kashmir still had not implemented the directions of the supreme court. As a result, the trans community staged its first protest, taking place in Srinagar’s Press Colony, where offices of major local newspapers are located. Over 30 trans people participated and peacefully raised slogans like “LGBT Rights are Human Rights,” “Implement the Supreme Court Judgment” and “Every Human Deserves Dignity and Respect.” The protest continued for over two hours, and there was no arrest or detention made by the authorities.
In the end, Enus says nothing came out of the petition, except for the inclusion of third gender on forms and identity cards. “Constitutionally, [trans people] are recognized as third gender, but when it comes to implementing agencies they don’t prioritize them in any way.”
Despite these failures on the part of the regional government, Mehak remains an optimist and believes that there is a need for change within the trans community as well. She believes education is the key to bringing her community out of the clutches of poverty and pity.
“I couldn’t continue after high school, as my family was not willing to let me go to public places, including school,” Mehak said. She wants the government to keep some slots open in all the educational institutes exclusively for trans people and help them with the fee waiver policy as well.
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Apart from rallying for education for her community, Mehak comes to the rescue of the young traumatized trans people rendered homeless by their families. “We first try to counsel the trans person in our own way, to continue his or her studies and then we connect them with the family,” she said. “If they accept them, it is good for both of us, but if they reject it is our responsibility to take care of him/her. We cannot offer him/her expenses for study, but we try to support him/her to explore options of livelihood.”
This community mobilization is already showing its positive impact. The new generation of Kashmir’s trans people are living their lives with a sense of pride and exploring new areas of employment and opportunities.
Umar, a trans makeup artist, took to his profession quite early in his life, giving up his college education to explore his interest in fashion designing and makeup. Along with other trans women, who usually travel outside of Kashmir for marriage and dance shows during winters, Umar went to New Delhi, where he met one of the trans men doing makeup for small-town fashion models.
“I assisted him,” he said. “And that’s how I learned the art of living and became an independent and empowered trans person.” Before this new age of resilience, even researchers and academics in Kashmir had written the community off.
“The transgenders have been subjected to institutional injustices starting from family to government,” said Mansoor Ahmad, the first PhD scholar from the Sociology Department of Kashmir University, whose work is focused on the issue of the rights of trans people. “You won’t even find their mention in archives, as there is minuscule scholarship on this.”
Nevertheless, while Mehak and Khushi want to sensitize the students to their community, Babloo, a trans man from Srinagar in his 50s, is campaigning for governmental recognition of the transgender union he has begun to form. “We have been fighting simultaneously different battles from identity, reservation, labor security, etc.,” Babloo said. “Our faith in the government and judiciary is weak, and to make it strong we have formed a transgender union. At least we can protest, demand our rights and issue statements, if needed, to keep the officials on their toes.”
Despite the problems that remain, this kind of fighting language is a sign of hope for an elder trans man like Qadir. As the elder mentor told the gathering back in the tin shack, “We exist in Kashmir since the human race exists, and in all these years we existed as an invisible population.” Now, he said, “We are happy that our new generation is educated to some extent and vocal about their rights. They don’t shy from expressing their identities.”
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