“We have been in lockdown since we were born,” Kashmir’s transgender community face neglect, deprivation amid COVID-19 pandemic

Photo by Sonzal Welfare Trust

By Asma Hafiz, TwoCircles.net 

Srinagar: Anjali remembers the day before Kashmir was put under a military and communications lockdown on August 5 last year. It was a time of celebration for her community as they were looking forward to performing at weddings, which is one of the two main sources of livelihood for the trans community in Kashmir. The other being matchmaking.

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When the government of India imposed an unprecedented communication blockade and a strict security lockdown in Kashmir on August 5, 2019, and read down Article 370 – the wedding season had just begun in Kashmir. During the lockdown, which lasted several months, the trans community could no longer attend weddings or fix marriages. While they were still struggling to come to terms with the loss incurred due to six months of shutdown and curfew following the abrogation of Article 370, the imposition of COVID-19 lockdown has added a new layer of struggle and uncertainty for this already marginalised community. 

“We have been under lockdown since we were born. The pandemic created problems for those people who have a place in society. For us, there is no such place,” Anjali told TwoCircles.net.

Unlike most transgender people of the region, Anjali lives with her family.

After surviving transphobia in school, Anjali took a break from studies and started to perform at weddings. To deal with gender dysphoria, she requires regular counselling services. Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, she finds herself locked within the four walls of her room.

Census of India had never considered the third gender while collecting data until the year 2011, they were given recognition for the first time. According to the 2011 Census, there are around 4137 transgenders in Jammu and Kashmir.

Dr Aijaz Ahmad Bund is a social worker who runs an NGO Sonzal Welfare Trust, whose stated goal is to work for the welfare of LGBTQIA community of Kashmir. He started his journey in 2011. The organization has around 2500 beneficiaries. Aijaz believes that the downfall in the economy caused by the pandemic is going to have a devastating impact on the lives of marginalized communities.

The lockdown has deprived the transgender community from accessing hormone therapies and counselling services. Due to the strain on healthcare facilities, the needs of the trans people have taken a backseat.

“The necessities of the trans community were never really a priority here. The lockdown has only added to their miseries as they struggle to make ends meet. During the lockdown, there were so many people on hormone treatment who faced difficulty. Either it was unavailable or unaffordable. I had to arrange it for them because you cannot ignore gender dysphoria. There are a lot of psychological issues, it can even give way to suicidal tendencies. All these treatments are available in hospitals outside Kashmir but, sadly, not here,” Aijaz Bund told TwoCircles.net.

As people are cancelling weddings due to pandemic, the trans community have been rendered jobless. The lockdown has exposed and enhanced the deep gashes of inequality prevalent in society. Many people find themselves homeless as paying rent has become difficult especially during this time.

Aijaz has extended help by creating a platform where the members of the community assemble and help each other. He was infected with coronavirus while mobilizing people to offer support to the transgender community. However, he is adamant to continue fighting for the rights of the LGBTQIA community.

Shabnum Subhan has hardly left her home since the implementation of lockdown due to coronavirus pandemic. Speaking with TwoCircles.net, she said, “Today I left home for the first time and do you know how much I earned? Just 200 rupees. Tell me what am I supposed to do with this meagre amount?”

Discrimination against the transgender community is not new in Kashmir.

“A transgender visited my house one day and my mother washed the cup thrice in which he drank tea. From that moment, I knew what I wanted from my life,” says Aijaz Bund.

In 2011, Aijaz’s NGO started the struggle by taking up the case of the transgender community with the Social Welfare Department of Kashmir. They convinced them to formulate an intervention plan which they could not implement citing the reason it required a nod in the cabinet. And hence, it was not approved at that time. After two years, the NGO moved to the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) whose role is to give recommendations but it was unable to do so. The case dragged on for four long years and in the end, SHRC claimed they (NGO) had been approaching the wrong institution.

In 2017, the NGO decided to file a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) in High Court. The PIL comprised all the components including social and civil rights such as health insurance, education, reservation.

“It built pressure on the Social Welfare Department who then came up with a policy that they submitted in the High Court. But it had a lot of loopholes. Firstly, the mere definition of transgender was misunderstood. It talked about setting up a board, conducting medical checkups. It was very repressive and we objected to that. After that, a lot of interim judgments were passed, some were very good judgments. It was for the first time that the state identified transgender as an idiosyncratic gender beyond the dichotomy of male and female. They added a third column for transgender in the applications of schools and jobs but the overall empowerment of the community is still pending,” Aijaz said.

Amid the ongoing lockdown, in the same PIL, the Social Welfare Department included the trans community in Integrated Social Security Scheme (ISSS), which makes them eligible for a monthly pension of 1000 rupees. Many beneficiaries are yet to avail this benefit because most of them have been disowned by their families and therefore are not able to submit documents that are mandatory to make use of this scheme.

“This 1000 rupees will not empower us. What we have been demanding is reservation in education and jobs because we believe that education can liberate us. We are not asking for anything big, just basic human rights,” said Shabnum.

Sonzal Welfare Trust also provides mental health services to the LGBTQIA community for free. Many clinical Psychologists do voluntary work for the organization. Bund himself is trained in LGBTQIA affirmative therapy. After lockdown, the NGO has been providing these services by video chat or phone.

“The bias against the LGBTQIA community is deeply rooted and even various mental health practitioners are unable to understand them. It is important to create a space where they feel wanted and understood. With certain relaxations in the lockdown, we are resuming our meetings while taking into consideration the norms of social distancing,” says Dr Farah Shireen, who has a PhD in Clinical Psychology.

Anjali looks forward to these sessions. She likes to read Urdu poetry and is an admirer of Urdu poet, Allama Iqbal. When I asked her how she would describe her life in a couplet, she said:

Mai na puchugi tumse mera kya kasoor tha

Ae meri zindagi ab tum se gila na raha

Mujhe gairu nai rulaaya apnu ne kiye sitam

Ae meri zindagi ab na koi gila raha 

(I will not ask you what was my mistake

Oh my life, I have no complaints with you

While strangers made me cry, I was oppressed by my own

Oh my life, I have no complaints with you)