Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Lakshmi’s Story

People are curious to know about hijras. How do we live? Behave? What do we do? Do we kidnap children? What funeral rites are performed for a hijra after his death? Is he cremated or buried? Such questions do not have answers. Only scholars can answer these questions. Because we hijras are so secretive about our lives, hearsay rules the roost.
As hijras we live ordinary lives, like everyone else. Like the underdog, we are respected by nobody. Except for the newly introduced “Adhar Card” we have no “adhar”  or official recognition, or support from any quarter whatsoever. We are thus destitute. Estranged from family and ostracized by society, people couldn’t care less how we earn a livelihood, or where our next meal comes from. If a hijra commits a crime, the mob rushes to attack him while the police are only too glad to press charges against him. This is not to justify crime, but to reiterate that all crimes have a social dimension, and in the case of hijras this cannot be overlooked. Yet it is never taken into account.
We hijras live in ghettos. In Mumbai and Thane, many such ghettos exist in neighborhoods like Dharavi, Ghatkopar, Bhandup, Byculla, and Malad. The eviction of the poor from the city of Mumbai takes its toll on the ghettos. They begin to shrink in size. The hijras then disperse toward townships like Navi Mumbai where survival is a bit easier.
Our main occupation is to perform badhai at weddings, or when a child is born. At such times we sing and dance to bless the newlyweds or the newborn. But can badhai alone fill our stomachs? Obviously not, and so we supplement our earnings by begging on city streets, and performing sex work, and dancing in bars and night clubs. Dancing comes naturally to us hijras.
It is believed that all hijras are castrated. We call it nirvan. In the eyes of the public we are castrated males. But that is not always the case. Castration is strictly optional, and every hijra decides for himself whether or not to undertake it. Castration cannot be forced upon a hijra. Though the world believes that a castrated hijra alone is a real hijra, we do not endorse this. I am not castrated. I did not opt for it and my guru did not pressure me into it. Most of my chelas are also uncastrated like me. But yes, many of us have had breast implants. The surgery is expensive, but without it our transformation is incomplete. However, unlike many other hijras, I haven’t gone in for hormone therapy in my desire to look feminine. Though I am not castrated, the hijras regard me as one of them.
At times, we hijras are in the news for the wrong reasons. Say, for kidnapping a child and forcing it to become a hijra. Here, what is needed is an unbiased and impartial inquiry. Prejudice shouldn’t dominate. That hijras receive orders from their community to convert people to their gender is a myth. Our elders have never advised us to force someone to become a hijra. The decision to become a hijra is traumatic. Once one becomes a hijra the doors to one’s earlier life are shut forever. It isn’t easy for a hijra to come to terms with his new life. The family, and indeed society as a whole, reacts strangely. Terrified, the hijra in self-defense invents the story of his having gotten kidnapped and forced into hijrahood. Sometimes, even a complaint to that effect is lodged! Of course, it’s not as if hijras never kidnap kids. But then the community doesn’t forgive them. Like mainstream society, the hijra community too has its share of criminals. Though the laws of the land should be sufficient to deal with them, crimes by hijras are often exaggerated and the hijras are chastised. Disproportionate punishment is meted out to us by the police and the public. This is unfair.
Yet another myth about us is that the funeral of a hijra is performed late in the night and he is beaten with slippers. The unearthly hour is chosen, it is said, so that none should witness the funeral. But this is rubbish. Hijras belong to different religions, and our last rites depend on our religion. A hijra who is a Hindu is cremated, while a Muslim hijra is buried. When carrying the corpse of a dead hijra to the graveyard, we shed our women’s clothing and dress instead in shirts and pants, or in a kurta and pajama pants. We do this to hide the fact that the deceased is a hijra.
The hijras are a family. The guru is the mother. Then there’s the dadguru who is the grandmother, and the purdahguru who is the great-grandmother. The guru and his chelas comprise a family. A guru selects a successor and trains him. If a guru fails to choose a successor, the panch, or the leaders of the seven hijra gharanas, choose him. All crucial decisions are made by the panch. Its leaders are wise men who command the respect of the entire community.
Once one decides to become a hijra, there is a christening ceremony, known as a reet, which he must undergo. It’s a bit like the janwa, the thread ceremony of the Brahmins. The rites are performed by the guru and the disciple is initiated. The charter of rules and regulations is explained to the aspirant. These concern little things like how a hijra must walk, and how he must serve water to a visitor. While serving water, the glass must not be held at the top or the middle. Instead, the glass must be balanced on palms joined together. The pallu of the hijra’s sari must not touch anyone as he moves around. One should not lie with his feet facing the guru. The guru’s clothes mustn’t be worn by the chela, nor should the latter utter his guru’s or gharana’s name. The hijra should not talk back to his guru. And so on.
There is a saying among us, that for a hijra it is all words and nothing else. Guru is a word. Chela is a word. The woman in the guru makes him feel motherly toward his chelas, but the man in him makes him authoritarian and dictatorial.
In everyday life, we do not observe the rules of our community that strictly. But if our leaders are around, we do. This is just as it is in mainstream society. At the end of the day, it all depends on how liberal (or otherwise) your guru is.
My guru never imposed restrictions on me. Lataguru did not want me to talk about my life to the press, or allow them to publish my photographs. But other than that she gave me ample freedom. At first, I observed all the rules, because the decision to become a hijra was, after all, mine. But soon there came a time when I rebelled. I could not stand these restrictions on my freedom. I began to give interviews to the media. I appeared on television. I traveled abroad. The community fined me for these transgressions. I paid the fine and committed the “offenses” again. I was all but ostracized by the community. But Lataguru stood by me. She was proud of me because I was educated and had a mind of my own. So what if I broke all the rules?
It is tiresome to swim against the current. I have been swimming against two currents, one society and the other community. Both need to change their attitude. Whereas society needs to confront its biases toward the hijras, the hijras themselves must be forthright. We have paid a hefty price for living an estranged and secluded life. The black sheep in the community, no more than ten percent of our total population, defame the entire community.
To counter this defamation, I have established a support group known as the Maharashtra Trutiya Panthi Sanghatana. We fight for the fundamental rights of hijras. We managed to persuade the state government and the Planning Commission to give us the Adhar Card. Since Hijra sex workers are susceptible to HIV and AIDS, we work towards the eradication of these diseases. We try to obtain housing and employment for the hijras. Change is only possible when the laws change. And for that, the authorities need to be approached. It is happening in other Indian states, so why not here in Maharashtra? In Tamil Nadu the hijras have been given houses. In Madhya Pradesh they have run in elections and won. The hijras have potential. Their families must support them so that they realize their potential.
I work at the local level, state level, national level, and international level, too. I go abroad frequently. I do for my chelas what my guru did for me.
Subhadra was my very first chela. She was murdered in Sheelphata. Many of my other chelas have passed away. Kiran succumbed to AIDS. She loved me selflessly. She was intelligent and disciplined, and had terrific managerial skills. Rupa, who was a fashion designer, also died of AIDS. Payal was a wonderful cook. Kanda poha, omelet, and chicken biryani were her specialties. But she took to drinking excessively and finally died of alcoholism.
I try to save hijras like Kiran, Roopa, and Payal. I try to talk them out of their vices. But in my heart of hearts I know that words are poor consolation. As a hijra myself, I can empathize with their anguish. Their female psyche, trapped in a male body, stifles them. There is no one in this world they can truly call their own. They don’t have an easy means of making a living. Their sex work causes mental pressure and anxiety, and nagging questions about their identity. Their working conditions are gruesome. A hijra often thinks to himself: Sala, what is this life! And to blot out his misery, makes liquor his best friend. But this association proves costly. It eats into one’s vitality. I thus failed to save the lives of Roopa, Kiran, and Payal.
And Shahin. No one who saw her would call her a hijra. She was a Bollywood heroine! She nursed the sick like Florence Nightingale! When my father was dying, I entrusted him to her care. She would buy medicines from the store downstairs and give them to him at the prescribed time. She stood by my mother and brother Shashi like a pillar of strength.
Shahin was Shahid Naik before her christening. He was the son that followed the birth of his elder sister. They were from Konkan. When Shahid was ten, his mother died and he was brought up by his grandfather in Mumbra, Mumbai. As a child, he was fond of household chores. He helped his mother in the kitchen. Though his mother was touched by his concern, the others in the house mocked him. They called him names. They thought he was effeminate. When Shahid grew up, he befriended some homosexual men. That’s how I got to know him. He wanted to become a hijra, but he wasn’t old enough to be initiated. So I advised him not to convert just yet, but to hang out with us and finish college. But Shahid was adamant. He began to live like a hijra in the company of Subhadra and Sangita. Then one day, Shahid Naik became Shahin. Became my chela. Her family had no clue. They thought she was out shooting a film, because that is what she told them when she left home. Shahin never went home after that.
One day Shahin received a call from her uncle. He wanted to meet her. A meeting was arranged, and when the family saw her in a sari they began to wail hysterically. They wanted her to get back into men’s clothes and return home. But Shahin meant business. She stayed with us and earned money.
When Shahin’s younger sister got married, it was Shahin who bore the expenses. The family then took her back into the fold. Today, Shahin’s father is in touch with her. When Shahin goes home on annual visits, she takes gifts for everyone. Her brother refused to speak to her at first, but relented later. Only her stepmother hasn’t come round yet.
Then there’s Kamal. He was the only son of an Ulhasnagar businessman. But from childhood he was fond of cross-dressing; wearing a sari and make-up. The family dismissed this as a kid’s fancy. But one day Kamal told his family: “I will not be able to live as you want me to, as a male.” Saying this, he left home. His best friends were Shiba and Vinnie, and all three of them became my chelas. Kamal’s folks landed up at my place in Thane. They were comforted to learn that their only son was safe and sound, and that we lived together as a family. Today, Kamal’s folks have opened their doors to her. Sometimes she goes home on overnight visits. She’s not in the family business of course, but works instead in a dance bar. She hands over her earnings to her folks, believing it to be her duty, though her parents are well-off and do not need her money.
There’s a family I am related to by blood, and then there are my chelas who are my other family. I need both families and cannot envisage a life without either.


Hijra Farsi: Secret language knits community

 MUMBAI: It's not often that one stumbles upon a secret language floating around the streets of a busy Indian metropolis, least of all a language that has been alive-and-kicking across the sub-continent for a century or two.

While the language in question is shrouded in mystery, its keepers are anything but obscure. The vivid make-up, rose-red lipstick and colourful saris draped across a body that is neither entirely male nor entirely female make South Asia's Hijra community among the most visible sexual minorities. Yet their lexicon is invisible to civil society, though it remains in use across much of India and Pakistan.

"Nobody besides the Hijra community would understand the language we speak. It was created for the purpose of self-preservation during the British Raj. While literature shows that Hijras occupied a privileged position in ancient India, the British criminalised us and put us behind bars. This language was as a survival mechanism for Hijras," says Simran Shaikh, an attractive and articulate member of the community, speaking to TOI at her guru's sunlit home in Kamathipura's 1st lane, a stretch of Mumbai's red-light district reserved for Hijras.

Shaikh's claims are backed by academic research in India and Pakistan. The language is sometimes referred to as Koti or Hijra Farsi, though it has more in common with Urdu and Hindustani than it does with Persian.

That the language is still in use may have to do with the fact that the community continues to be persecuted in independent India. "Seventy-four percent of the Hijra community has suffered violence and harassment," says Shaikh, who works with Alliance India, an NGO that works on AIDS prevention.

"Today, if there's some information I'd like to communicate with those within my community that the outside world does not need to know, I would use this language. For instance, if there's a police van in sight and I want to warn a member of my community standing on the road, I'd use this code language," says Shaikh.

'Complete language'

Academic research validates the claim that Hijra Farsi is indeed a language and not simply a collection of secret code-words. A research paper by Islamabad-based scholars, Muhammad Safeer Awan and Muhammad Sheeraz, who studied the language spoken amongst Pakistan's Hijra community, shows that the language contains its own unique vocabulary. It has its own syntax that differs from other mainstream languages, making Farsi "as good a language as any other."

Another academic paper by Himadri Roy, professor at Indira Gandhi National Open University, Delhi, shows that, much like any other language, the language of the Hijras has nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and other parts of speech, with verbs used to complete a sentence.

It's a language that a pretty young Hijra called Ayesha, who has yet to come out of the closet at home, uses when she meets other members of the community. She uses this language while talking to her friends in public, when she doesn't want the rest of the world to know what she's saying. She talks of the words used to allude to an attractive man, as well as words that distinguish men of different age groups. There's a specific word to describe a man in the age group 16-18, and another for one who is 25-30.

"See what I'm wearing," says Ayesha, pointing to her colourful get-up and bright sari. "We call this satla in our language," she adds, referring to a word used for feminine clothes. For Ayesha, a language to call her own has helped her embrace her identity as a Hijra.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Girl’s Girl

Transgender is an umbrella term that unites all those whose gender identity does not match their gender assignment at birth. The term does not represent drag queens or transvestites. It refers to people trapped in the wrong body. Bhoomi is an example of the reality we need not hide from.

 A stunning 6 feet tall, with long luscious hair and a brilliant smile, Bhoomi bounds down the Equal Ground stairs and welcomes us with open arms. A giggling girl at heart yet born in a male body, she tells us about her struggle to fit into society and lead a normal life.
Bhoomi was an only child who went to D.S. Senanayake College (an all boys school). She tells us that since she was little she always knew she was different – her childhood dream to be like Madhuri Dixit, to dress like her, act like her, dance like her. Uncertain whether she was meant to play with boys or girls, she always felt more comfortable with the girls. She recalls having a nice childhood but when she reached Grade 5, she realised her classmates were eternally excluding her from games and groups for classwork. Bhoomi has always had a high-pitched voice as her voice never cracked. Since she quite clearly sounded different to the other boys in her class, during concerts she was never allowed to sing on stage, only backstage with the
teachers. She tells us how her teachers loved her but also tried to encourage her to act more boy-like to fit in. This was not something she could control.
In grade 11, her crush of 5 years made fun of her in front of her whole class, laughing at her saying she didn’t have female parts. Thankfully also around this time Bhoomi met her best friend Moksha. She finally had someone in her life to talk about her feelings and how she was different because she felt like a girl but had been born to a boys body. “It was nice to finally have a best friend, someone who cared about me and loved me for who I was,” Bhoomi exclaims.
Once Bhoomi had finished her ALs and left school, she tells us things started getting harder as she started to grow her hair and nails, and wear make up. Her mother gave her a hard time, telling her to live somewhere else, but Bhoomi couldn’t even understand it herself. She prayed to God for a miracle to make her a girl.

Moksha introduced her to Equal Ground where she went to a sensitizing workshop on gender, sexuality and gender based violence run by Charles Nigel De Silva. It inspired her and she gradually started learning more and more about herself. She was glad that she wasn’t the only one in this situation and she realised that her life was valuable.
Bhoomi did an interview for a show called Mogamodhi (Mask), talking about her situation and her feelings about it. By some chance the program did not cover her face as they were meant to and it was viewed by her mother, their community and even the people at the Kovil. People who could not relate to where she was coming from began to give her a hard time. It was at this time that her mother kicked her out of the house. Bhoomi went to stay with her boyfriend at the time as she had no where else to go. The problem with this situation was that her boyfriend had told his parents that he was in a relationship with Bhoomi’s ‘twin sister’ (Bhoomi does not have a sister), so after 4
months Bhoomi moved to her own place in Rajagiriya. She tells us how difficult it was for her to find a place to live because she sounded like a girl on the phone, but looks like a boy. When she tried to explain to them that she was a boy physically but was going to become a girl, people were uncomfortable because they did not understand her situation.
Bhoomi started working at Equal Ground in 2011 (around the same time as the Mogamodhi interview came out), she tells us that it was them who helped her find a place to stay, gave her a job and the support to be strong. At Equal Ground, Bhoomi works as a Field Officer, a Counsellor and a Youth and Transgender Networks Co-ordinator. She likes her job and likes that she is slowly, one person at a time, changing people’s attitudes toward Transgenders.
Bhoomi says she knows girls don’t have all the same opportunities as men in this country, but at least they can be girls. She is frustrated that she speaks up so much for women’s rights, when women themselves don’t understand her plight and deny her her rights. There are moments that Bhoomi feels lonely and harassed, as even the simple pleasures are complicated. She says: “I get a lot of attention from boys – but I think it’s just for sexual things, not love, and I’m not happy with that. Once when I was sick and went to the hospital the receptionist called upstairs and said come down and see ‘magic’. It’s embarrassing. I’d rather be sick than go there again and be upset.”
She tells us that her parents accept her slightly more now and that her father told her that he doesn’t mind if she’s a boy or a girl, as long as she doesn’t let society laugh at her. She considers herself a Transgender who wants to be a girl. She is currently receiving treatments and is hoping to increase her doses of female hormones soon. One day her dream is to have Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) but there is no rush. She’s been reading up on it and tells us there are new methods coming up all the time. What she really wants is to be able to have a baby. Even if not her own biologically, she is sure that one day she will be a mother. Her friends have advised her to stay a shemale in case any problems occur, but she explains that she has been living this ‘halfhalf’ life right now. She just wants to be fully female, not for her society’s sake, but for her own happiness. Bhoomi is hoping to change her name officially but will need her parents present for that, so that has been put on hold for the moment.


Monday, December 9, 2013

Will India recognize a third gender?

A biologically male teenager from Dattapukur on the outskirts of Kolkata was evicted from home for being too effeminate. Subject to routine family violence and exploitation, the child, who identified as a girl, was rescued by the Association of Transgender /Hijras in Bengal (ATHB) in August. ATHB soon realized that there were neither any shelters for transgender children nor any sensitization in the Child Welfare Council regarding the children's sexuality. In the absence of state protection, the teen was sent back home after some parental counseling.

The incident is telling of the legal vacuum that marks the life of the transgender community in most parts of India. "In most government hospitals, there is a male and female ward, but no space for transgender individuals. There is ambiguity in access to most basic services," points out Ranjita Sinha of ATHB Bengal.

But change could be in the offing. A petition that is due for a verdict in the Supreme Court (SC) has been weighing whether transgenders can be given legal recognition. This has been a longstanding demand of the gender rights movement, and was reiterated during the multi-city Queer Pride Parades. Its significance however, is often drowned out by the debate over decriminalization of homosexuality.

The issue got an impetus thanks to a public interest litigation filed by the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) in the SC in 2012. It seeks equal rights for transgenders which could translate into a third gender category in hospitals, toilet allocations as well as separate recognition in basic identification such as ration cards, election cards, passports and driving cards. The arguments have concluded and the verdict is due.

Transgender is the term broadly used to refer to people who prefer to adopt a gender role different from the biological sex they are born into and includes transsexuals, cross-dressers, intersex persons and gender-variant persons who could be male-to-female, female-to-male or gender queer. There are no exact estimates, but the community is estimated to be between 0.5 million to 1 million. Time is rife to question whether India can look beyond gender binaries of male and female to accept a third gender into its fold. Could we liberalize sexuality rights like neighbouring Pakistan, Argentina or United Kingdom?

It may seem radical, but piecemeal changes are already underway. Tamil Nadu has paved the way by setting up a Transgender Welfare Board in 2008 which certifies aravanis (male to female transgenders ) and provides them with identity cards. The IDs entitle the group to 33% women's quota in higher education, facilitates hospitalization and loans for self-help groups. In 2012, the Karnataka government included transgenders in the category of "backward communities" entitling them to social welfare benefits. The Centre-initiated Aadhar card and voter ID too allow an "other" category.

Amritananda Chakravorty of Lawyers Collective explains why legal recognition is crucial. "Though some documents have started to recognize third gender identity, the law continues to operate within a binary norm, creating a system where hijras/transgenders are left in a legal grey area, where their gender identity is not recognized for all purposes," she says. For instance, a hijras driving license may be female, voter's identity (other), birth certificate (male), causing public embarrassment and personal humiliation. "Non recognition of the identity of hijras/ transgender persons denies them equal protection of law. They have no recourse to legal protection, in case of sexual assault and rape," she adds.

Dr L Ramakrishnan, country director, Solidarity and Action Against the HIV Infection in India (SAATHII), Chennai, says that in Tamil Nadu, access to transgender benefits vary across districts as screening committees often adopt their own criteria. For instance, some insist that transgender IDs can be given only to those dressed full-time as women or those who have undergone a sexual re-assignment surgery. Even passport authorities in India accept sex change of individuals only after medical certification. But that is precisely where the hitch lies as most transgenders don't have access to sex reassignment surgery as it is available only at private hospitals , and expensive.

But does legality guarantee a better life? "Transgender persons are happy to get themselves registered...but discrimination towards our community continues and will take time to end given that it has existed for years," says Bindiya Rana, who contested Pakistan elections as its first transgender candidate. In a 2009 SC order, Pakistan granted legal status to transgender individuals allowing them to be registered under the computerized national identity cards but change in attitudes, of course, could take much longer.


* Argentina passed the Gender Identity Law, 2012, giving individuals the right to determine their own gender. No third or gender-queer option

* Pakistan computerized national identity card offers three options — male transgender, female transgender or (Khunsa) and male/female transgender

* South Africa Act 49 allows transpersons to change their IDs with a note from a medical professional

* UK: The Gender Recognition Act (2004) recognizes trans-persons if a medical doctor certifies that they have lived with gender dysphoria for two years

* Germany: A new law passed in November 2013 allows parents to register their children's sex as not specified