Distorted Image of Kashmir’s ‘Other Humans’

“Even my father told me, Cze chukh mye gonhan hund saza (You’re a punishment of my sins). He never beat me, but his words pierced my little heart like an arrow.” 

By Muntaha Mehraj Hafiz

AS dawn breaks in Kashmir on 6 November 2022, an obituary flashes all across the social media: “Kashmir’s Reshma is no more.”

Soon people start heading towards the ancestral house of this popular transgender, originally named Abdul Rasheed, to mourn her demise, and pay condolences to the family and largely, transgender community.

“We’re devastated,” says Bablu, president of Transgender community as she rushes to prepare for the funeral of her life-long friend who after a brief ailment of six months passed away at SMHS hospital, Srinagar.

In the early hours of the hazy frigid season, a huge crowd congregated to pray the Islamic funeral prayer. Reshma’s body was finally put to rest in her inherited graveyard at Merjanpora.

At home, everyone sit together to recollect the unforgettable memories of this 58-year-old who is looked upon as an “icon” in his community. A hardworking sensational singer and a tailor by profession left with an everlasting impact on everyone who knew him as “Reshma.”

Born in 1965, Reshma lived a simple life, and valued little things that she earned by the virtue of her relentless hardwork and innovative personality. Living an invisible yet meaningful life, it was in 2018, when one of her songs went viral on internet and she became a household name.

Soon after this, her enticing personality and her singing style gave her prominence, and she started receiving invitations for wedding ceremonies, and concerts from families all across the valley.

Knowing her liabilities, she decided to take this opportunity. At this time, despite being a member of a marginalized community with fewer resources, she pledged to invest in the family of her departed sibling – a family of five, and get them married and settled before her eyes.

“She supported my family when there was no one to take care of us,” says Shahzada, Reshma’s sister-in-law. “She was a father and a mother to my children.”

Reshma’s flair for composing songs, and pidginizing lyrics in a humorous way not merely helped her grow as an artist but bestowed her with a wider acceptance amongst the society – something that she yearned for last 53 years.

Her popularity also unexpectedly deposited confidence in other members of her community, and helped them become vocal about their rights. Standing at the forefront of the fight for her community, she guided and inspired many.

“Reshma urged us to work hard and live our lives with dignity,” says Rahat, her colleague, a 40-year-old transgender. “She once told me: Do something that keeps your name alive even after your death.”

A struggle of years, family support and patronage from her own community helped Reshma defer the jeers aimed at her but ordeal of 4000 transgenders in a conservative and conflict-ridden Kashmir still remains unattended.

This marginalized community continues to struggle for their rights, and fight discrimination in every aspect of their life. From finding home to homelessness, traumatic childhood to depressed adulthood and gender dysphoria to death on roads, the story is manifold.

Life as a Tenant

Muhammad Ramzan emerges from her bed silently, and out-of-routine looks into the mirror that’s hanging haphazardly on the wall of her single-room apartment.

This sexagenarian trans-woman lives on rent at one of the posh colonies of Srinagar. The building accommodates 25 people, among which 12 are from transgender community. “I’ve been living here for last 28 years,” says Ramzan, who migrated from Pulwama to Srinagar in 1995.

The quality of this unvarnished room that’s divided in two sections reflects the ordeals of her life – a make-shift kitchen with a row of utensils tucked in an open cupboard in one section.

And the other section is a place for sitting and sleeping. The accommodation feels cold, not like something that one would call home. Besides, there’s no television or any other means of recreation.

This is how 90 per cent of the transgenders live in Kashmir– as tenants.

“This is our life,” says Ramzan as she wears surma in her eyes. “We only come here to sleep.”

Her face looks tired as she didn’t sleep enough the other night. She arrived late after attending marriage ceremony of one of her clients.

In Kashmir, most of the weddings are managed by transgenders, and many of them either work as match-makers or artists who sing and dance at wedding ceremonies.

A match-maker for over 35 years now, Ramzan has presided over 300 marriages. Though intermittently, her encounter with the families has been disappointing.

“Even those families that are affluent negotiate too much, and sometimes they even don’t pay,” says Ramzan earning barely Rs 10 thousand a month. . “They fail to understand that this is the only source of livelihood we have. My room rent is Rs 3000 per month. Please tell me how much do I spend on my necessities and how much do I save?”

Earlier Ramzan had contemplated shifting to some other place after her tussles with the landlord but being the only bread-winner, she would hardly find a place that she could afford. Moreover, her difficulties escalated when she had to spend most of her savings, during the Covid-19 pandemic phase.

Back in March 2021, the union ministry of social justice and empowerment issued a pandemic advisory stating “a subsistence allowance of Rs 1500 should be disbursed to each transgender as immediate support to meet their basic requirements”.

But transgenders in Kashmir couldn’t avail the benefit as they lack basic documentation such as proof of residence, election cards and ration cards required for verification. Due to lack of awareness programmes by the concerned department, many remained uninformed of this “special scheme.”

For the community, this failure of identification process has also been one of the major hindrances in receiving remuneration of Rs1000 which they’re entitled to under pension scheme.

“After Covid-19,” continues Ramzan, “many from our community were left with no work at all. We received no financial compensation from government. It was only with the support of some NGOs that we were able to make our ends meet.”

Amid this apathy and at her ripe age, Ramzan wakes up early and wanders around in the city to find prospective clients, most of the times, by foot.

“I get tired now,” she sighs. “Sometimes I feel hungry but I don’t have energy to cook for myself so I go to sleep without taking dinner. Having my own shelter was my dream but I don’t think I can fulfil that now.”

In the same apartment, another transgender—Sahiba aka Arshad Sufi—calls Ramzan to inquire about a client.

“She accompanied us here in 2019 after the revocation of Article 360,” says Ramzan, pointing to Sahiba, a trans-woman in her mid-40s.

Sahiba was evicted of her rented place when she couldn’t pay the rent. She’s a matchmaker and a beautician too.

“My landlord abused me savagely, and called me names,” says Sahiba, with a deprived tone. “I couldn’t take it anymore, so I left. After all I am also a human being.”

After she left the place, she struggled to get a place on rent and had to sleep in a shrine for a week.

The debate on the need for government sponsored accommodation for trans-people has been on-going for the past few years now.

On 12th February, 2022, the ministry of social justice and empowerment formulated a scheme – SMILE (support for marginalized individuals for livelihood and enterprise) which includes comprehensive rehabilitation of transgender persons including housing facility in the form of “Garima greh” that ensures clothing, recreational facilities and skill development programmes. However, no such work has been initiated in the Jammu & Kashmir.

Misunderstood and Stigmatized

One in hundred families sees the third gender an integral part and do not belittle their presence, says Shabnum, a 48-year-old transwoman residing in an old city. “Everyone else doesn’t even want to stand next to us,” she says. “We make relationships. What other job is more pious than this?”

Wearing a grey Kameez Shalwar and hand-knitted black skullcap, Shabnum with a youthful look turns unhappy. “I wanted to study,” she says, “but my father got me discharged from school when I was 10.”

Her typical feminine behaviour—wearing makeup, sitting with girls in the class and playing with them—was what got him in trouble.

Her father told her to stop behaving like a girl. “But how I could tell my father that I can’t stop behaving like something that I really am,” Shabnum says.

Transgender, in medical terminology, refers to a person with a gender identity different from the sex assigned to them at birth. Like a transgender woman who lives as a woman today, was thought to be a male when she was born and a transgender man who lives as a man today was thought to be a female when he was born.

Moreover the term “transgender” is used to encapsulate various gender identities, including gender diverse individuals who identify outside the socially-constructed gender binary of male and female.

At the age of 16, due to constant trauma from her siblings and relatives, Shabnum had to run away from her home in Baramulla. Three decades later, hardly any of her family members except her father has paid her a visit to Srinagar home.

There are instances when a tinge of gloom passes over Shabnum’s face, and it’s when she talks about her parents. “My mother was ill and nobody took care of her,” she says. “I had to return home despite knowing that nobody wants me there. I served my mother like a daughter, and she passed away in my arms.”

After her mother’s death, her relatives provoked her father to kill her as she would bring disgrace to their entire clan. “They tortured him with their words and ultimately his health deteriorated too.”
“One of my relatives even spat to my father’s face and called him a father of filth.”

In his last days, Shabnum’s father visited her for the first and the last time and asked for forgiveness.

“This is an indelible mark on my heart,” she says. “My father didn’t die a natural death. The taunts of people killed my father. And they’re the ones who call themselves ‘normal’.”

Childhood Trauma

In Kashmiri society, transgenders are placed at fringes and face a lot of abuse, humiliation and discrimination, however the startling revelation is how this cycle of violence starts at home, followed by victimization at school and ultimately being ostracized by the society, says Dr. Aijaz Bund, academic and prominent LGBT activist from Kashmir.

“We see gender in binaries or dichotomies,” Dr. Bund added. “Anyone who transgresses these rigid binaries is eventually ‘othered’. Existence of such a person is considered an abomination to family honour. Also, transgender phobia is so much that families disown their own children – sometimes unknowingly due to fear of the society, which is awful.”

Amid the existential crisis, Sara unwittingly started to dress like a girl at the age of 8. She had taken birth as a boy to her parents.

“I loved to powder my face, and wear Dupattas,” says Sara, a 19-year old transgender. “But my mother used to beat me with a bathroom bucket, telling me: Cze kyah laans chuke (Are you a eunuch)?”

Sara was clueless as why she was treated so badly by her own mother. Most of times, her mother’s unusual behaviour made her impulsive and she would start banging doors and windows.

“Even my father told me, Cze chukh mye gonhan hund saza (You’re a punishment of my sins),” says Sara. “He never beat me, but his words pierced my little heart like an arrow.”

Sara had to lull herself to sleep as she had grown fearful of her own parents. Both of them are educated and work in a reputed government organization.

At school, Sara’s misery intensified as she was harassed by her classmates for the way she talked and behaved. “When I reached my puberty, my friends frowned at me,” says Sara.

At that time, her sense of gender was still unclear to her. This psychological abuse pushed her into gender dysphoria.

Everyone was sceptical about Sara’s identity, but her anxiety wouldn’t have escalated if her parents would’ve listened, and helped her through this. “Back home,” she says, “I wanted to talk to my parents about this humiliation, but they never received my cues.”

According to psychologists, transgenders and gender-diverse persons experience significant health and well-being disparities when compared to their cis-gender peers and can be mitigated by individual-level factors such as strong family relationships.

“We shouldn’t instil shame in our children,” says Waseem Kakroo, a clinical psychologist of Srinagar. “If parents find themselves in a fix, they should find a professional to help them. It’s better to talk to people with expertise in the field instead of hiding or perpetrating violence on your child.”

Kakroo also feels contrite about the absence of awareness programmes in educational institutes and in the society at large which could help sensitize people about gender issues, and protect transgenders from this trauma.

“Gaps in sex education creates confusion, and leads to misgendering,” he says. “Due to which many transgenders live a life of uncertainty and have mental health issues such as depression, anxiety disorder and suicidal thoughts.”

At this time Sara is seeing a psychiatrist. She still feels impulsive, and has sleepless nights. The memories of her harrowing childhood are there, frozen in the corner of her mind, in the same room that she never dared to escape from.

Lured and Exploited

Farah shies away from seeing a visitor. She has been reprimanded by her Guru. She was not home since morning and returned after a daylong get-together with her friends.

“For the entire day,” says Saniya, a 34-year-old transgender – also the leader of the group, sternly like a mother, “Farah either is grooming herself or roaming unnecessarily.”

Saniya sits on the edge of her kitchen counter, staring at Farah with anger. “The conditions are worse,” she says. “We cannot trust anyone.”

In this rented space, there’re two rooms — a bathroom and a kitchen joined to a living room. Five transgender women live together in this apartment.

From a distance, not raising her eyes, Farah stands nervously to wash cups in the basin. She steals some moments to check views on her recent WhatsApp status. She has just uploaded her picture in a new look.

Farah owns makeup from top-class international brands and loves to experiment with her face. She’s not interested in match-making or singing. “I want to be a designer,” she says excitedly.

Farah dresses like a woman, and no one would take her as a Trans until she speaks. “At home I saw daylight in cracks, as I was not allowed to socialize,” says this 17-year-old trans-woman. “I told my parents that I want to live with my own community, so I came here.”

It has been three months since Farah is here. She’s friends with her other roommates, but is terrified of Saniya.

Saniya is the elder one and knows how to guard these abandoned teenagers who come to live with her. She’s worried about the younger generation that could be vulnerable to exploitation by men and women in the society.

“Since there’s an emotional distress,” Saniya says, “we easily fall in love.”

She names few transgenders who were abused physically and emotionally, and then robbed off all the money they had earned. There’re incidents of transgenders being gang-raped by a group of six drug addicts, and the one who was raped at a wedding ceremony, and a case of a minor who was abused at the school in the preceding year, to list a few.

In India, the sentence for rape is up to ten years in prison for a cis-gender. However, in the legislation set up in 2019 by the ministry of social justice, the penalty for any sexual abuse against a transgender doesn’t exceed two years.

This bill ironically has been passed to empower and safeguard the rights of this marginalized community.

Saniya wants to raise these issues but is apprehensive about being misjudged and ignored. “Nobody comes forward to speak about these crimes,” she says. “People are reluctant. We are facing multiple levels of oppression and don’t have mainstream opportunities to report them.”

She also points out how a section of people think that transgenders, significantly transwomen, dress to get exploited. “We know our limits,” Saniya says. “It’s unfortunate how people think we dress to attract men. If a cis-gender woman grooms herself, does that mean she should be raped?”

She extensively talks about the myth in the society that being a transgender is pretence involving emotions that are deceptive. However, medical science is providing long insights about their ‘actual’ condition.

“Fundamentally,” says Dr. Hamid Zargar, a top endocrinologist of the valley, “sexual identity comes from proper development of sexual organs, and the endocrine system associated with them. However if there’re some structural or hormonal anomalies it can lead to sexual ambiguity. This is a medical condition, and person needs to be evaluated on time. Most can be helped by assigning them a proper biological sex.”

Apart from the field of endocrinology, researchers in neuro-anatomy have been exploring the science of gender identity.

Many studies have revealed that there’s a neurological difference between the brain of a cis-gender and transgender.

With reference to this, a research by Dr. Murat Altinay, MD Head of Transgender Mental Health at Center for Adult Behavioural Health, U.S.A, shows structural and functional similarities between the transgender brain and the gender it identifies with.

For example, a person who’s born with male genitals and ends up identifying as a female often actually has some of the structural characteristics of a “female” brain. Moreover, the brain activity of transgender people tends to look like that of the gender they identify with.

Other research studies, as Dr. Altinay writes, also show that brains of transgender people are somewhere in between, sharing characteristics of both male and female brains.

For now, Saniya is worried about Farah and other transgenders in her community, and believes that it’s only education that can unfetter them from the cycle of oppression, “and awareness is the first step towards acceptance”.

Death on Roads

Living a substandard life, transgenders who’ve been forsaken by their families often die on roads, and denied burial by their own families.

“Two of our elderly transwomen died on footpaths during the harsh winter season in 2018,” says Aijaz Bund.

One among them was a 90-year-old transgender who was suffering with dementia and her body was lying outside UN office in minus 2 degrees for 20 days.

In 2021, another incident raised hue and cry when a dead body of a transgender was lying on the road with stray dogs mauling over it. “The body was burnt and spoiled like roadside debris,” Dr. Bund says.

In Kashmir, each household owns a family graveyard which is a private land for burying the dead but the abandoned trans-genders are rejected by the families even after their death.

“Strict action will be taken against such families who deny cremation of their family member,” says Mohammad Shafiq Chak, Director Social Welfare Department. “We’re devising a policy to set up rehabilitation homes, and a community graveyard for transgenders in Kashmir.”

But the death isn’t an end to their troubles, says Dr. Bund as he recollects one of the family members callously telling him: She has always humiliated us. Please don’t bring her here.

“Transgenders need a proper place for burial,” he says. “The place where they can be buried with dignity like other human beings.”

  • Names in this story have been changed to protect the identity of the characters.

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