April 12, 2018
Beginning in childhood, Kashmir’s transgender community members face bullying and discrimination that can last a lifetime. Now, a Supreme Court ruling and a local financial-assistance initiative suggest that the tide of public opinion may be turning.
SRINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR — She was bullied and harassed in school.
Classmates called her names. They wouldn’t talk to her or even touch her.
Mohammad Aslam, 40, now goes by her chosen name, Babloo, and she says the torment she faced as a young transgender student is impossible to forget.
“It was hard,” she says of her time in a government school in the Dalgate area of Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. “As I explored my sexuality, I started to get bullied by my classmates.”
As a child, she says she loved playing with girls’ clothing and makeup.
“My parents used to put the boys uniform on me, and I hated it,” she says. “I loved to see the girls wearing frocks and wanted to be like them. At home, secretly, I used to wear girl’s clothes and I used to dance. I loved to see how women would put lipstick on their lips and kohl on their eyes.”
By ninth grade the physical and verbal harassment had escalated, and Babloo says she had no choice but to drop out.
“I had to leave,” she says. “It was unbearable to go there and face the people and the bullies every day.”
Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-Administered Kashmir
Transgender people here, known as hijras, are increasingly well documented but face discrimination in this traditional, Muslim society. High dropout rates help lead to low literacy rates among the region’s 4,000 transgender people, as counted in the last census.
Bullying is a direct cause of lower levels of education and of long-term struggles to find employment, advocates say. For years, steady jobs for members of the transgender community have included matchmaking and performing at weddings, but as more brides prefer modern DJs, transgender people in Kashmir say finding employment seems impossible. A government-funded financial-assistance program is now offering support to transgender people in Indian-administered Kashmir, one region where progress has been slow for the community.
In 2014, the landmark judgment in the case of National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India recognized transgender as a legal third gender.
The Rights of Transgender Persons Bill was also passed in India’s parliament, but advocates say its provisions have scarcely been implemented in the Kashmir Valley, a Muslim-majority area that is part of a contested region governed by India.
The 2011 census, the most recent available, recorded 4,137 transgender people living in Jammu and Kashmir state. According to the census 49 percent of the transgender population is literate.
Aijaz Ahmad Bund, a scholar who has emerged as an outspoken advocate for the transgender community here, says the consequences of abuse in schools follow transgender children for the rest of their lives. Bund, who is not transgender, published a book last November called Hijras of Kashmir: A Marginalized Form of Personhood.
“The environment in the schools is not conducive for trans students to study there,” Bund says. “They are bullied by fellow students [and] teachers, as well as by the non-teaching staff. It is not only the verbal abuse. They suffer from physical and sexual abuse as well.”
He says dropping out is a common result, which leaves few employment opportunities in adulthood. Taking jobs as entertainers at local weddings has long been a common profession for the under-educated community.
When Naima Mir got married last September, she says she opted for a DJ rather than live entertainment by hijras.
“DJs are becoming popular in Kashmir, and everybody is now booking them,” the newlywed says. “The dance and singing of transgender [people] is getting old, and we thought to try this new trend. So we also decided to follow suit as our friends had also booked the DJs during their weddings.”
Zareef Ahmad Zarref, a historian, confirms that the tradition of transgender people performing at weddings dates back to the 14th century.
“I used to love to go to weddings and dance there with girls, wearing girls’ clothes,” Babloo says. But today, she says work at weddings is harder to come by. She currently takes side jobs as a matchmaker, another traditional occupation for members of the transgender community.
Shabnam Subhan, who identifies as a transgender female, says that completing her education would have helped her be more successful later in life.
“It’s very difficult. Even when filling a small form, we have to take help of someone else,” she says, referring to the fact that he and other members of the community are illiterate. “If I wasn’t forced to quit my education, who knows? Maybe I would be able to get a job, as well.”
While the 2014 Rights of Transgender Persons Bill affirms the right to education free from discrimination, more than a dozen teachers declined to speak to Global Press Journal on the issue of bullying in the classroom.
The bill states that the appropriate government and local authorities shall “provide necessary support in environments that maximize academic and social development, consistent with the goal of full inclusion.”
In January 2018, the state government of Jammu and Kashmir announced that the Below Poverty Line (BPL) program, a financial-assistance program that provides food, housing, electricity and medical access, will now be accessible to the transgender community.
Haseeb Ahmed Drabu, former finance minister of Jammu and Kashmir, announced that the BPL program would offer a specific budget for members of the transgender community in Kashmir.
“Every transgender shall be treated as living under BPL unless indicated otherwise. All the transgender people in the state will be extended all the facilities,” Drabu told Global Press Journal, before he was fired by the prime minister in March. His firing was unrelated to his support of financial assistance for the transgender community.
Babloo confirms that the program has been implemented and says she and others are working together to fill out the forms required to register.
The government assistance will go a long way to help with basic survival, Babloo says.
“Many steps should be taken, not only by the government but by the common people and religious authorities, as well,” she says.
She urges religious leaders to give sermons focused on tolerance and says she has an idea to build a separate school for transgender children in the area.
Raihana Maqbool translated some interviews from Urdu.