Transgender people in Kashmir are leading an 'invisible life' as security crackdowns and discrimination come to a head

  • Transgender people in Kashmir face discrimination and harassment throughout their lives.
  • Many work as matchmakers or performers at weddings, but coronavirus restrictions mean they are now out of work.
  • Kashmir is not only in the grip of the virus, but also a security crisis since India removed the region's autonomy in 2019.
  • Trans expression is a taboo subject in Muslim-majority Kashmir, pushing members of the trans community into the shadows.
  • View more episodes of Business Insider Weekly on Facebook.

Now is not a good time to be transgender in Kashmir.

Members of the trans community are often rejected by their families, and by a conservative society that views them as an underclass.

To make matters worse, a security crackdown imposed by India since removing the region's autonomy last year — and now a coronavirus lockdown — means that they are without work and have been pushed to the brink.

Aijaz Ahmad Bund is an academic and rights activist for the LGBTQ community. From a small office in the regional capital Srinagar, he speaks out for those who have no voice.

"This society has pushed them to the wall. They are living an invisible life," he told Business Insider

"They face discrimination in every aspect of life. They are abused physically, verbally. They face a lot of street harassment. They face a lot of sexual abuse as well."

One of the few trans individuals to have made a name for herself in Kashmir is Abdul Rashid, otherwise known as Reshma. She is a well-known singer here, but even she is struggling to make ends meet.

She makes a little money from tailoring, sitting on the floor of her small apartment with an old sewing machine. Her experience growing up is similar to many among the trans community. 

"I wasn't allowed even out of our lane. I would be asked where I had been for so long and then beaten for being late. We would take the narrow side streets to avoid getting bullied on the main roads. Some would even spit on us," she told Business Insider Weekly.

From a small drawer, under lock and key, she takes out a small vial and applies mascara.

"Growing up, I wasn't interested in studying, but was into girlish things. I used to put chalk on my face as powder," she said.

Transgender people in Kashmir are living in the shadows.

Unlike in other parts of India and Pakistan, the transgender community here rarely dress in colourful clothing, afraid of ridicule — or worse.

Subhan, known as Shabnam, is luckier. Her family has always supported her.

"I used to get along well with ladies, not that much with men. That's because I had an affinity towards them and not towards men. As time passed by, I started dressing up like them, and then it became clear that I was a third gender," she said.

But a life of living in the shadows, combined with the present-day double crisis of pandemic and security crackdown, has taken its toll.

"I must say that we face so many issues that we can't even count them," she said.

Traditional patriarchal values mean that sex and sexual orientation in the Muslim-majority region is a taboo subject. And gender affirmation procedures are not seen as a viable option.

"Our Quran doesn't allow us to bring changes to our bodies that won't be good. How our Lord made us, we should remain that way. We are a third gender," Shabnam said.

With the region in political turmoil, the past year has been suffocating.

Already a shunned and invisible minority, Kashmir's trans community is now living in a land that has been turned upside down.

Last year, India abolished Article 370 of its constitution, which granted Kashmir a special status as an autonomous region.

The move stripped Kashmir of its flag and its lawmaking powers, and brought it under direct control of the government in New Delhi. Thousands were arrested and imprisoned — and all phone and internet services cut off.

Today, security forces continue to line the streets and man checkpoints.

For the trans community, with little acceptance from wider society and no means to communicate with the outside world, this last year has been suffocating.

Communications have only been partially restored but blackouts are still a regular occurrence.

Aijaz Ahmad says mental health issues are prevalent in the community — as are attempts at suicide. Those disowned by their families are even denied a proper burial.

And he said his research suggests around 15% of the transgender community is forced to work in the sex trade to make ends meet.

Wedding gigs are some of the only jobs transgender people can find — and those are drying up.

One of the only acceptable lines of work is matchmaking and performing at weddings. It's here that Kashmir's trans community are permitted to dress, and perform, as themselves.

Mohammad Aslam, known as Babloo is a matchmaker, playing the role of broker between two families in arranged marriages. She, like the others, is now without work.

"The situation deteriorated after the abrogation of Article 370," she said. "We can't go to people's houses because our work involves interacting with people in their homes. At the moment we are hesitant to meet people and are scared of getting infected and vice versa."

With weddings cancelled and an increasing number of people finding their own partners online, times are tough.

"People used to call us to dance and sing at marriages, and we used to get good money as well. Now there are DJs, and women sing too, so we don't get much business there," Shabnam told Business Insider.

To make matters worse, the Indian government has now made it possible for non residents of Kashmir to own property and work in the region, putting a further squeeze on job opportunities.

"We have people who are violated on a daily basis."

An irony of the abolition of Kashmir statehood was that the mountainous region inherited Indian laws on homosexuality, which was recently decriminalized.

Yet this, as well as a transgender rights bill passed in 2019, has made no real difference to the lives of Reshma, Shabnam or Babloo.

Aijaz Ahmad says the problem is not their legal status, rather acceptance by society.

"We have laws, and we have a lot of provisions in the Constitution of India which protect citizens irrespective of their gender, sex, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, blah, blah," he said.

"But still we see that such people are discriminated against. We have people who are violated on a daily basis, and we believe what is more important is the ideology that needs to change."

Every few weeks Shabnam, Babloo, Reshma, and other members of Kashmir's trans community gather with Ahmad to drink tea and share their stories, and their woes. For most of them, this is the only family they have.

Ahmad remains optimistic, in spite of the stark reality they face.

"We are very hopeful that there may be a day that you know we will be able to see a gender-inclusive society," he said.

Baboo added: "It's all up to God. God has to run the whole universe. God who will take care of each one of us."

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