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Trans in Kashmir

July 02, 2022
topic:LGBT Rights
tags:#Kashmir, #trans rights, #LGBTQ+
by:Nusrat Sidiq
"I am a woman. I don’t care how others see me or judge me." Kashmir's trans community refuses to accept marginalisation and abuse any longer.

Draped in a loose white shirt with baggy jeans and a red hat, 21-year-old Manu Bebo was the centre of attention in a room full of young women in Indian-administered Kashmir. She was all set to deck up a bride for her special day.

"I am a free bird," Bebo told FairPlanet as she giggled with women around her after applying the bride's make up. She was referring to the sense of freedom and independence she felt.

Bebo, formerly named Manzoor Ahmad, works as a make-up artist and identifies as a proud "trans woman." Notably, most of her community members in Kashmir are less open about their gender identity due to familial and societal pressures.

Now, Bebo is trying to shatter the barriers placed against trans people in the area, as her community struggles to lead a life of peace and dignity.

For decades, conflict-torn Kashmir constituted a source of contention between India and Pakistan, both of whom lay claim to it. The two countries have fought three wars over the Muslim-majority region since the partition of India in 1947.

Given the region’s socio-political instability and the prevalence of conservative sentiments, the trans community Kashmir has faced ongoing marginalisation and various forms of abuse, including sexual abuse and 'family honour'-induced incidents of domestic violence.

Over the last few decades, however, trans people have been accepted as matchmakers and as performers at wedding ceremonies, which provide them with a source of income.

Yet, some young trans activists like Bebo strive to make a point to society: they can live on their own terms without having to abide by societal norms.

"I am proud of my identity and have been very open about it since I realised that I am a trans woman," Bebo said.

She lives with her parents at the congested area of Nawakadal in Kashmir's capital city, Srinagar. Despite her relatives’ ridicules of her as a 'sissy' and occasional exclusion from family events, Bebo never gave up her cause. Today, she is a well-known make-up artist in the region, with over 22,000 followers on her business Instagram account.

"I am a woman. I don’t care how others see me or judge me. God has created me this way and I am free to do what I like," she said.

Between neglect and resolve

However, older trans activists in the region say that embracing your trans identity and being open about it is a real challange.

"Many of us don’t have family support," Zubi Jan, a 51-year-old trans woman living in a rented room in Srinagar, told FairPlanet.

Years ago, Jan was thrown out of her house for being a trans, and was often scolded for bringing shame upon the family. Now, she earns her living by singing and dancing at weddings, but still craves for her family's love.

"My brothers didn’t want to see my face, they told me to either behave like a man or leave home. I chose the latter," Jan said.

A 2018 study about the trans community in Jammu and Kashmir points out that the old age is most probably the worst phase in the life of a trans person, as they are either disowned or have unstable ties with their families. 

"They cannot return to their families and instead choose to struggle against illnesses, poverty, poor health and isolation," the study mentions.

"My brothers [...] told me to either behave like a man or leave home. I chose the latter."

India is home to an estimated 488,000 trans people, including 4,127 in Indian-administered Kashmir, as per the 2011 census - the most recent official data available.

Trans people in India and Kashmir face a slew of socio- economic hardships, including poor access to education, housing, employment and psychological healthcare, social exclusion, sexual and physical abuse, a low socio-economic status, a meager monthly income, reduced family care and lack of property ownership.

Farah Qayoom, a sociologist and assistant professor at the University of Kashmir, affirmed that trans people in Kashmir are still largely excluded from society and fail to receive the same treatment and rights as cis-gender people.

"On top of family or societal pressure, there is an institutional injustice against them, making them more alienated and marginalised," Qayoom told FairPlanet.

However, Qayoom noted, some young trans activists are challenging these societal tendencies and demand to be accepted as they are.

"I think social media and mainstream media have helped them a lot," Qayoom said.

incremental change, lingering stigmas

Babloo G, a trans activist born as Mohammad Aslam in Srinagar, has been in the matchmaking profession for the last three decades.

She told FairPlanet that she has been very lucky to receive her family's support despite the malicious verbal attacks against her in the neighbourhood.

"[They would say] 'Look she is acting like a woman, she will bring disrespect and other stuff,'  which was hurtful [...] but things changed. It was only possible because I had family support," Babloo said.

In 1992, Babloo was just a teenage trans activist. She started singing and dancing at weddings, but faced ceaseless bullying outside of her work.

"At that time it was very difficult to go out in the streets because people would pass bad comments at us. Sometimes boys made loud whistles or called us different names and, at times, a loud laugh.

“Now things are pretty much changed, because there is more awareness among people, especially the younger generation," she said. "However, our community is still discriminated against and stigmatised a lot."

In a 2013 study, scholar and LGBTQI activist Aijaz Bund says, "In Kashmir, transgender people are called by a derogatory name 'Laanch', which is identified as a characteristic of both male as well as female, but this term is used mostly to repress their orientation or gender, which kills their confidence to take part in the social and political decision making."

Bund identifies himself as an activist advocating for the rights of the trans community in Kashmir, and blames the region's patriarchal society structure for infringing on the community's liberties.

Bund has been advocating for trans rights since 2011, and later on founded an NGO Called the Sonzal Welfare Trust in 2017 along with over 300 trans activists in order to build a support system for the community.

Also in 2017, Bund filed a petition before the High Court of the region to respect the rights of trans people, but despite a slew of directives passed to the Jammu and Government, "nothing is visibly done on ground," according to Bund.

"It is pathetic to see how bad this community has been discriminated for ages and yet the government has failed to even come up with a transgender board, education upliftment of the community or healthcare screening and even other benefits," Bund said.

Muslim and transgender

Most trans people in Kashmir take pride in being Muslim and oppose making any changes to their bodies. 

Babloo, for instance, said Islam does not permit alterations to the body. "I am a Muslim first of all; I have to go back to my Lord, I will be answerable to my actions."

Trans people who do undergo a sex reassignment surgery (SRS) in Kashmir often face increased cultural and social rejection and, in some cases, experience greater abuse at the hands of their family.  

A very small percentage of trans people think there is nothing wrong with SRS. Although homosexuality is deemed a sin In Islam, both of its major schools of thought have declared gender reassignment surgery acceptable.

However, young trans activists in Kashmir, such as Bebo, say that if somebody wishes to change their body, others should have no qualms with it.

"It is my body. If I want to change it, I will," Bebo said.

Image by Debrup Travel & Films

Article written by:
Nusrat Sidiq
Babloo G.
© Nusrat Sidiq
Babloo G.
Embed from Getty Images
Despite a slew of directives passed in Jammu and Kashmir to protect trans rights, not substantial change is seen on the ground.
© Asif Hassan
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